& "AT" (alternative technology)
last worked on: December 14, 2022
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* Best I start with where I'm coming from and going with this page. My views on alternative technologies might help. I advocate for both family/individual and community scale alternatives, for simplicity, for Schumacher's notion of sufficiency/enough --and for living within modest limits. I definitely share Schumacher's loathing for the menace and the scale of nuclear power (and see recent developments concerning "advanced" reactors).

As to matters of size and scale, I favor a (sought for) "standard" for communities, technologies, institutions, infrastructure/power plants and (as possible) government --that they be commensurate with "human scale" (re: Kirkpatrick Sale) --perhaps something more felt than calculated.

That said, and because one must multiply average consumption by the serviced population load --I expect that we are doomed (and I'm sorry to be such a downer guy here) --by our inability (even in the United States, let alone "3rd world" cultures) to have a civil discussion about growth and "population policy". (That's the euphemistic way we're sometimes able to reference reigning in overpopulation --which is currently 1.5x to 3x what's sustainable, depending on one's assumed standards and practices of living, industry, and agriculture).

Never-the-less: it's important that I humbly "witness", so I can at least feel myself to be less a "part of the problem".

* And here (a link to the August 2022 New Yorker) is an excellent witness --in the person of Daniel Ford, former executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, on the safety of nuclear power plants.

* To which I comment: that both fossil fueled and uranium fueled power plants are "thermal" plants/engines, subject to theoretical and practical limitations on their efficiencies. In the best of all engineering worlds and using existing materials, any thermal plant can't hope to do better than a 60% rate of converting  (whatever) heat source to electrical power. In practice, coal plants are the most efficient at about 33%. Nuke plants run maybe 30%, due to the need to "fire" them at a lower temperature (lest their fuel rods be catastrophically damaged).

In other words: all thermal plants generate about 2 times their total electrical energy output as direct environmental heat. (Right: nearly all the electricity ultimately turns to heat as well.)

AT Criticism:

* Witold Rybczynski's "Paper Heroes" takes Schumacher and the alternative technology movement to task for being impractical and inconsistent with some of their own goals. Although WR seems somewhat oblivious to the social and spiritual aspects of smallness, he's certainly right about many practical matters --thermal efficiencies and such. (A narrow concern for efficiency and engineering coherency can easily lead to a functional --or a dysfunctional,  "technocracy".)

Wind turbines and solar panels:

* Straight away, and no matter how cost effective solar panels become (as of November 2017, they're already beating fossil fuels --even in Saudi Arabia!), I suggest that they do not belong on the roofs of average, single family homes --and for obvious reasons. Think about it. Although solar panels have projected lifespans of 30 years and up. the average lifespan of a typical composition roof is about 20 years --and count on it: a home owner isn't going to pay specialists to re-install his/her old, out-dated, out of warranty, and perhaps brand unsupported panels. Those panels will go into the landfill. Here's an article in the estimable Harvard Business Review that's quite oblivious to that point.

Nor do noisy wind turbines, nor does any kind of serious power generation. We'll come to realize that (and to the detriment of our collective AT advocacy) as roofs leak and need replacement, as fire fighters refuse to direct their hoses onto burning, solar paneled homes, as the insurance industry and prospective home buyers turn a gimlet eye toward such installations.

Update (July 30th, 2020): Manufactured homes: Last year I helped my son-in-law reroof his manufactured home --the kind that's trucked in by halves, which get joined together on a slab foundation. He had to modify part of it for better rain shedding, which revealed that the trusses were made of 1x2s --instead of 2x4s. This year an e-friend who also lives in a Mfg. home noticed that the roof and cielings were sagging --enough to start cracking the dry wall. 10 years previous, he'd reroofed his house --upgrading to much better (and heavier), 30 year rated roofing.

If you Google "solar panels" + "manufactured home", you'll find warnings to not load a Mfg. home with solar panels. (Best rake off any accumulations of snow fall as well.)

* Update: thoughts, questions and critiques:

    ~ Automatic disconnect gear for residential solar power cogeneration is (of course) essential, lest a lineman gets fried. Presumably, this gear is inspected, tested and either passed or condemned by the regional power company. (I need to learn how that's managed and billed out.)

    ~ Although cogeneration surely serves to forestall overload "brown-outs", I can't imagine that there's any reliance on private home power generation. Should the neighborhood's grid go down, even for the solar panel powered home itself, I'm guessing it's an automatic disconnect.

    ~ If a private cogeneration source's equipment gets condemned, do I imagine correctly that it has a 3-way "switch": total disconnect, full cogeneration connect, and line-power only? (Hopefully, the power company doesn't just come and pull the meter --which it would have to do, and with almost no notice nor liability, if the cogeneration is shown to not reliably disconnect --and there's not a "3-way switch".)

    ~ Given that "pure" sine wave inverters cost a lot more than --than the other kinds, how clean is the typical, private, cogenerated power installation? If it's "spikey" and squarish, what is the normal impact to the source household and other homes in the immediate (shared pole transformer) neighborhood?

    ~ If a home installation's cogenerated power is (by itself) essentially square wave in nature, and if the automatic disconnect gear fails (perhaps out of the equipment's warranty period), who carries the liability for damaged neighborhood electronics and (say) low-voltage motor burn-outs? (Has this happened?)

    ~ Have there been instances of frustrated home owners jumping out the disconnect and jerry-rigging their solar power during an extended power outage?

* Judge these issues for yourself and from your choice of sources --but do so with open eyes and ears for opinions on all sides of the issues. Google: solar + panels + roof + leaks --and read. (Those old fashioned "+"es are optional.)

Then Google: solar + panels + fire + insurance (and/or "fire fighters").

* Renewable energy has turned the corner on beating fossil through research and efficiencies of scale. Scale enabled investments in that research, reductions in equipment costs, ever more installed capacity, and the efficiencies of large plant management by a single team of competent, professional specialists.

* Again: bigger is not always better, but neither is smaller always better --especially when in a race to achieve the earliest retirement of nuclear and fossil fuel megawatt power plants --in order to help save the planet.

* Exceptions for residential installations would be for isolated rural residences with stand-alone, purpose designed structures for supporting and maintaining the power generating and storage hardware. (The simpler, the lower the power, and the more user understandable/repairable --the better.)

* In my opinion: the "appropriate" place for (say: kilowatt and up) AT/renewable energy production is as a distribution of well engineered, zoned, regulated, and managed community or municipally owned, grid system compatible, small power plants. Distributed power generation (of course) needs less copper and less robust transmission lines, since a multi-source grid is in itself robust. Aside from having a smaller carbon footprint (partly due to more durable panels and supporting structures), emergency backup power is everywhere closer --than it is from sparsely located megawatt power plants.

* 10/14/2021 update: Tah-dah! --it's happening --here in Oregon: community owned and managed solar farms. See:

Alternative alternatives:

* Wind turbines don't have to be wump!-wump!-wump! bladed, bird exterminating, 100 ton monsters.

* There are fascinating bladeless designs that rock-n-roll and use advanced fluid engineering.

* How about an electrostatic wind harvester which demands nothing more of its immediate environment than to receive and pass through a water mist:

A proposed (in 2016) destination attraction and residential building in Rotterdam --built around a silent, bladeless, "windmill"
See: , and updates at:

We're also seeing good news and investments in robust devices which convert wave, tidal and ocean current energy into very reliable electrical power.

* Most north country/midwest homes have basements --which take advantage of the above freezing temperatures at modest depth --commonly over 50 degrees. They are cool in the summer, relatively warm in the winter, and the pipes don't freeze. Basements do have drawbacks in that they admit moisture, dangerous radon gas, grow mold, fluorescence, and might flood during heavy rains (for which the common recource is to install an automatic sump pump). All-in-all, I think traditional basements are a bad idea ---

---But: clever people are accessing that free warmth/heat/sink, with buried liquid lines, air ducts or the other end of a reversable heat pump. I can see frightful problems to forefend, like re-accessing those pipes and ducts for repairs and maintenance --say: to stop leaks or to remove an invasion of air duct mold (especially if used for cooling). Best not bury them under a house.

Be sure to check out:

Some adult concerns about solar panels:

From the Liberty Mutual Insurance web site (and hopefully, they don't have a fossil fuel ax to grind), I've borrowed, paraphrased, abbreviated, mutilated, itemized and added comments to a few points about business and home owner roof installations. (You want to take the link, since Liberty Mutual may well have updated their statements by now.)

* "--currently, there are no uniform standards to help guide the installation and maintenance of solar panel arrays."No doubt the Uniform Building Code will soon accommodate solar panels, but after UL gets ahold of it, I expect surprises that will be costly to retrofit. It might make a big difference to the safety and resale value of your home, should your panels be able to meet future UBC/UL standards and pass an FHA inspection.

* Ground fault detection and interruption (GFI/GFDI) might not work if isolated conductive roofing elements are not themselves properly grounded.

* Roofs are designed (if compliant with the UBC) to carry the load of (perhaps) a second layer of re-roofing, the force of storm winds and however many inches of snow in temperate climates. Solar panel weight and (depending on the installation) added wind loading might exceed a roof's support strength.

* Should the roof and/or solar panel anchorage fail in a storm, heavy solar panels, lofted into the air, are going to do a lot more damage and possible injury than torn off composition roofing.

* As we've recently seen from that London high-rise fire, exterior paneling which is offset with a gap beneath can present a sheltered "fire flue" effect that's devilishly hard to extinguish.

* In addition, solar panels can't be "turned off", as long as sunlight or the light of flames is reaching them. Firefighters might be reluctant to hose water onto the panels and would certainly refuse to chop through them in order to access and extinguish a roof fire.

* If you lease your residential or commercial building's roof to a solar panel installation company, and should there be a fire, electrocution or storm related damage to the roof or neighbors, determining liability might prove to be difficult.

* Solar power is a young industry with a lot of turn-over. In the event that hail or vandalism damages just one of the panels, will the manufacturer still be in business? Will you loose any "grandfathering" and have to replace all the panels --in order to meet future inspections and code?

* There's also a lot of turn-over in the ownership of homes. Some years ago, the average west coast Oregon home went back on the market at about 5 year intervals. Each time the roofing under those panels is 5 years older, while the (then) current solar panel technology is 5 years more efficient and codeworthy.
(This last one is strictly my own/Craig's point.)

Surely, I needn't belabor the true costs and environmental hazards of coal, petroleum energy and their extraction methods, but it's important to also take a critical look at our alternatives.

Looming large among them is the electric car, which entails beefed up infrastructure to deliver the needed electric energy and wars to secure scarce lithium for batteries. I suggest an "is this trip necessary" approach to reigning in our energy consumption, as well as examining the human fecundity and growth which underlies it all.

A minute's reflection tells us that, although individual vehicles take longer to reach a given destination at (say) 30mph instead of 60mph, prudent driving ("one car length between for each 10mph of speed) would allow nearly as many vehicles per hour to be passing by any given point (about 86% as many) --so highway capacity and destination arrivals would be about the same. The benefits of reduced speed include far less human and animal road kill (which diminishes by more than the square of velocity, if you figure in reaction time) and: significantly better fuel mileage^.

^ Much better than one might initially expect, since vehicles, tires, engines, crashworthy construction and fuel (or batteries, which literally weigh a ton in Elon Musk's performance cars, and which have incinerated a test driver) --could all be significantly lighter (and fewer/cheaper), thus further reducing the power and energy required for a given journey.

So okay, that cuts the over-all cost and operating expense of a vehicle --perhaps in half, especially considering that, with lower rates of wear, damages and injuries, vehicles would last longer, insurance would cost less and cars would probably be needed for fewer commuting miles (due to the return of the single income family and residences being located much closer to work and recreational destinations.

That last point follows --since folks are naturally reluctant to spend twice as long commuting to work, shopping and recreational venues. "The invisible hand of Adam Smith" :-))  --would create many more and closer destinations --in the fashion that southwest Wisconsin is strewn with little Toonerville towns, spaced out as far as a farmer would care to truck his milk to market in the dairy industry's early days.

More "car talk" here.