The Guide to Post Peak Living

Introduction

If you've read our explanation of what's happening or watched the video, you know that we are all going to be living the Post Peak Life. Since you are reading this, you're probably interested in knowing how to do that the best way possible.

Not only will we teach you how to reuse your greywater and grow your own food, we'll even recommend a good Chianti — but you'll have to make it at home.

You can read the Guide straight through, or you can jump directly to a chapter (see below).

Here is what we recommend you do to prepare:

  1. Take a deep breath — we've been where you are now! Believe us, the more you prepare, the more confident you will feel that you can handle peak oil.
  2. Stock up on food
  3. Prepare a disaster kit (FEMA will have even more trouble helping when oil is scarce)
  4. Decide where you are going to live
  5. Join or create a local post carbon group at TransitionUS.org
  6. Buy or barter for the products you'll want post-peak
  7. Learn to repair or make something tradable that will be valuable post-peak (sorry, that college degree may not be that handy any more)

Please use the information you find and prepare for a post peak world. We truly are all in this together.

— The Post Peak Living Team

How to Use This Guide

You can work through the guide chapter by chapter, or you can jump directly to a chapter. The chapters are generally self-contained.

Living a Post Peak life requires that you let go of any attachment to how your life looks now. Acknowledging that your current lifestyle will look different is important. Catch yourself if you think life will look a particular way. Here at Post Peak Living, we know that how the world looks today is the product of enormous amounts of fossil energy that will soon be leaving us.

As for the future, there are some things which we're certain of: airplane travel will mostly end; we will spend more time making sure the basics of life are all available for ourselves and our families; we'll carpool more at first, and then, as the economy declines, cars as they look today will no longer be available and the existing ones will rust where they are left.

We're also pretty sure that the worldwide economy, which is built on debt, will collapse just like Russia and Argentina did (to learn why we think that, read our primer or watch our video).

We also think that Kunstler in his novel World Made By Hand has painted a reasonably accurate picture of our future. 

Given what's about to happen, we think that being courageous and resilient is the best way to be. As you read the Guide, take the steps you need to make your life work well during Energy Descent, but remain unattached and able to change course as circumstances change.

If you start going down a dark tunnel in your mind, start practicing interrupting that to ask yourself,

Am I bigger than whatever life throws at me?

When we ask ourselves that question, the answer is always "yes" and we're sure it will be for you, too. However, we each still go down that tunnel occasionally so it's important to keep that question in your back pocket and pull it out as often as necessary.

The Post Peak Living Team has been preparing its families and communities in California since late 2007 and is continuing to do so.

Ready to start? Click on the link to the next chapter.

Food

When it becomes generally known that worldwide oil production is declining, we will enter the Age of Scarcity. Just like in 1973 and 1979, supermarkets will have difficulty keeping their shelves stocked of certain products and we will wait in lines for many highly sought after products. Add to that the burgeoning world population on a finite planet and the insane policy of turning corn into ethanol, and food will not be as abundant as it is now. Perhaps this is why in April of 2008 the Wall Street Journal wrote:

I don’t want to alarm anybody, but maybe it’s time for Americans to start stockpiling food.

No, this is not a drill.

You’ve seen the TV footage of food riots in parts of the developing world. Yes, they’re a long way away from the U.S. But most foodstuffs operate in a global market. When the cost of wheat soars in Asia, it will do the same here.

Reality: Food prices are already rising here much faster than the returns you are likely to get from keeping your money in a bank or money-market fund. And there are very good reasons to believe prices on the shelves are about to start rising a lot faster.

The author didn't mention peak oil, but oil is playing a large role in the increase of food prices. That's because every calorie of food we eat requires about 10 calories of energy from oil to grow it, harvest it, store it, process it and deliver it to the supermarket — and that doesn't include the energy to cook it.

For food, follow two strategies. The first strategy is to stock your pantry. This has always been a good idea in case you experience a natural disaster, but it's even more important now. (Here in the Bay Area of California, we have about four days of food in the supply chain. It's probably similar where you live.)

Stock up on:

  • dried pasta
  • rice and beans to make a complete protein
  • flour
  • cooking oil
  • canned tuna and chicken
  • canned fruit and vegetables
  • freeze-dried food
  • seeds

Food Storage

The next section contains more in-depth information on food storage, but here are the key facts:

  • Where did I purchase my freeze-dried food? I bought from Nitro-Pak. The food comes in 10-pound cans and they have all sorts of different entrées.
  • Does it taste good? I haven't tried it. If I'm dipping into that food, it's clear to me that all my other plans have fallen through. My goal is never to eat that food.
  • Where did I purchase my bulk food? Mostly at Costco, especially the dried spaghetti, which is very dense (macaroni has lots of air).
  • Are you starting to can food? Not yet but I expect to soon, if only to learn how to do it.

If you would like some additional guidance on storing and canning food, this book is very good. Pay special attention to the chapter on food spoilage. Lots of people who improperly store food can get sick because they were sloppy.

Cooking

If you don't know how to cook, now is a good time to start learning. For instance, it's easy to make pasta if you have the right tools (a higher quality but more expensive version is here). Pasta recipes are online, but if you prefer a book, there are several good ones (each previous word is a link). If you don't want to use a broomstick across two chairs like we did in my house as I grew up, you can buy a nifty drying rack in different shapes.

Growing Your Own Food

The second strategy is to grow your own food, either by yourself or in a community garden.

During the Second World War, up to 40% of the nation's vegetables were grown in Victory Gardens. At the turn of the last century, the city of Paris was producing so much food using the French intensive farming method that it was a net food exporter. That means that peak oil does not mean that we will starve, but we have to get busy making gardens in our backyards, public parks and other areas with arable land.

One system that specifically addresses urban farming is the SPIN Farming system but there are others.

Which seeds are best for where you live? This book will help.

My Costco Field Trip

May, 2008

I went to Costco to assess how quickly they would run out of food if people quickly started to stock their pantries. I spoke to the supervisor and assessed 17 different items. Most of them were food but I also looked at rechargeable batteries.

Here is what I found for pasta.

Garofalo pasta in 6x500g packs are packaged 8 to a carton and sell for $7.29 a pack.

A skid has 6 cartons and is 3 layers high, which means there are 18 cartons.

A skid of pasta thus holds:

18 x 8 = 144 packs (of 6x500g)

Assuming that Costco rations pasta like they are currently doing for rice, some number of families less than 144 will empty the skid.

If the limit is 2 packs per person, the skid can provide enough pasta for 72 families. Given the traffic Costco has, this could be accomplished within hours of opening.

The supervisor said that they keep "one skid, sometimes a bit more, on the steel." By "steel," he was referring to the shelving above the ground floor. They do not have stock elsewhere in the warehouse; all their stock is on that shelving. I asked why there isn't rice other than Uncle Ben's (normally they have Basmati or Sushi rice), and his response was that they can't keep it in stock. It sells out the same day they put it out.

Our disaster prep officials tell me the Bay Area has approximately 3 1/2 days of food in it.

We are heading for a food squeeze, according to the United Nations.

Bottom line: Get into the habit now of having a few months' supply of food in the pantry. 

 

Update from April 29, 2009

The World Health Organization has just increased the pandemic alert level to 5, just one down from 6. I have no idea which way this will go: no one does. But anything I buy now and don't eat goes straight into my disaster kit (you'll recall I live in an earthquake zone).

I just returned from Costco after stocking up on food, Vitamin C, latex gloves, Theraflu, pain relievers and Kleenex. Right now my Costco is well stocked all the items except for latex gloves (about a quarter skid left) and hand sanitizer, which is sold out. There was three-quarters of a skid of three kinds of rice and pinto beans, plus plenty of other canned goods.

Although I seemed to be the only one buying the items I was, this stock may not last for long as knowledge starts to spread that stocking one's pantry is a good idea at this point — especially while the products are available. 

Stocking Up a Pantry

Why should you stock up your pantry?

For almost all of human history, people have stored food. Only in the last 50 or so years have people  come to count on having an abundant supply of fresh cheap food available everywhere and at all times. Because most of us haven't experienced real hunger in our lifetimes, we've simply forgotten the why and how of storing food.

If you do not have a food storage plan, you are essentially placing complete faith on the following assumptions:

  • you'll never experience a natural disaster
  • the food supply chain will always have food for you
  • you'll be earning money to exchange for food

You may not want to test these assumptions. Here's why:

Natural Disasters

The number of natural disasters is increasing worldwide, including in the U.S. This is in part from freak weather caused by climate change and in part from increasing population.

You can survive 72 hours without food reasonably easily, but the same is not true for water. If you can't get drinkable water within that time frame, your body will begin to shut down.

Food Supply Chain

As Dr. Robert Hirsch (lead author of the 2005 Department of Energy report on peak oil) points out in his public presentations, when the public collectively wakes up to peak oil, there will be a rush for supplies. Most areas of the U.S. have about four days of food in the supply chain. Wouldn't you rather have your pantry already stocked rather than be one of the people in that mad rush? To see how quickly a Costco can be cleaned out, read about My Costco Field Trip.

The Economy

The economy is a slow motion train wreck right now. The major airlines are on the verge of bankruptcy; the car companies still aren't strong even after the bailout because credit is tight and each month more people become unemployed. Will you have the ability to purchase or trade for food as oil declines? 

Our entire lives have been spent in the most agriculturally productive era in all of history. The green revolution has been powered by fossil fuels in the form of fertilizer, pesticides, diesel-powered farm equipment, transportation and cold storage/refrigeration. Since 1930, these advances have enabled the world population to grow from 2 billion people to over 6.7 billion people, while reducing the number of people in farming from 25% of the population in the 1930s to 2% in the U.S. today.

However, what will happen as oil becomes very expensive or scarce? We still have all 6.8 billion people to feed.

You may have seen news reports on the high costs of food such as rice, wheat and corn, but you may not have heard that the amount of storage of these items is at record lows world-wide. The price increase is a result of low supplies. For seven of the last eight years world grain production has fallen short of consumption. With supplies so tight and climate change beginning to reduce crop yields, I can see too many things that could go wrong.

The culture of personal food storage has atrophied due to lack of need. Even governments have stopped storing food, and the UK has just asked stores to stockpile emergency food reserves because they no longer do.

Now you know that no one is protecting you from bad growing seasons or from high food costs or even scarcity caused by declining oil supplies. But if you get in action now, you have time to prepare.

How much food should I have?

Whether you're planning for a natural emergency (at least 72 hours worth of supply), bird flu (90 days) or peak oil (perhaps as much as a year), there are some basic guidelines.

There are two main types of food storage: maximizing your pantry and long term food storage. Maximizing your pantry basically means buying the stuff you normally buy, but having enough of each item to rotate through before it expires. For example, I use 1 jar of peanut butter about every 4 months, and peanut butter has a 1 year expiration date, so I have 3 jars of peanut butter in my pantry (plus some Nutella). When I use one up, I buy another one and place it in the back, and open the oldest jar in the front. No food gets wasted and I can buy on sale and save money. I also have quite a store of dried pasta. This is the effortless way I prepared myself for at least a few months of food disruption.

Long term food storage is for contingency planning, and will depend on what you're planning for:

MREs

The military uses "Meals Ready-to-Eat" (MREs), which are very convenient and require no cooking or added water. They can be a bit heavy and bulky per meal, they have a lot of salt, are expensive (over $6 per meal) and have a medium shelf life (about 7 years).

Bulk Foods

You can also buy bulk foods such as whole wheat, powdered milk (essential for mothers and families with kids), dried beans, rice and of course dried pasta. This is the least-expensive way to go (about $2 per meal), and requires that you cook and prepare all your meals. Shelf life is about 3 to 5 years (or shorter depending on the item), so this works best if you incorporate bulk foods into your day-to-day food consumption and rotation plan.

Freeze-Dried Foods

These are complete meals or foods that require only adding water. As water makes up most of the weight of food, this is the most compact way of storing large amounts of meals. They cost about $3.50 per meal, and with a 15 to 25 year shelf-life, this option works well for long-term food storage at a minimum of cost.

In addition to bulk foods I've also purchased freeze-dried food. I have enough for my wife and me for six months, and I'm mulling over increasing that to one year.

Although it's more expensive than the bulk foods, it's very reassuring to know that I have food in the house with an expiration date of 2033. I actually have no intention of ever using that food. If I need that food, all my other plans have gone poorly, so I look at it as an insurance policy. 

Demand for freeze-dried food has far outstripped supply, and all of the canneries are either out of stock or are back-ordered.

I bought my supply from  www.nitro-pak.com, as they are one of the few to have supplies in inventory in their own large warehouse in Utah.

How much food to purchase depends on you, your finances, and your storage capability. Here are some questions that will help you understand how much food to store:

  • how much food will you be able to grow for yourself and your family?
  • do you want to purchase food now for people close to you who didn't prepare?
  • will you want to give away some as charity?
  • do you have money now and are concerned about your money situation in the future?

Regardless of how much you buy and of what type, the key is to purchase now while supplies are still relatively plentiful.

Growing Your Own Food

Although this section is on food storage, I can't stress enough that food storage is part of an integrated plan for how you will continue to eat post-peak. Seriously consider starting to learn now how to grow your own food. If you don't have land, consider starting a community garden. The rest of this chapter has links to books and websites that will help get you started.

Where should I live?

It turns out that this isn't an easy question to answer.

Do you stay in the city? (Statistically, that's where you most likely live right now.) But, you ask, can a city feed itself? (They can but only if we get busy.)

Or do you and 11 amigos find a nice patch of land with a well, fruit trees and a chicken coop? Maybe you raise chickens in the city?

Unless you are really wealthy or have relatives in Idaho or Alberta, most likely you are going to stay in the city and get ready there. That's where your job may be now and you may need the cash to get ready for Post Peak.

So let's back up and take a serious look at your options.

Country Living

There are two schools of thought on where to live.

If you live in the country and become as self-sufficient as possible, you will have access to food. If you learn some skill and manufacture something, you may be able to trade it and bring in whatever currency is available at the time.

However, you will have little access to hospitals and other services. If you have a member of your family who has special needs, living in the country may be extraordinarily difficult for them.

Security may become a significant concern. How many people will you need to protect and keep what you've got if people get desperate?

City Living

If you stay in the city, your food will be entirely dependent on what comes in the supermarket and the vegetables you can grow yourself or in a community or rooftop garden. Crime will increase.

But there are advantages to living in the city, including access to health services. They will be stretched thin, but they will more available than in the country. If anyone in your family depends on pharmaceuticals, they too will be more available in the city.

There also tend to be more opportunities for trade in a city.

For many people, their job is currently in the city and they will want the money from that job to prepare as long as the job is available.

Ultimately, once you make a choice, you will have to find a way to make it the right one. 

Transportation

Transportation

In this chapter, we'll look at how you can move yourself and your things in a post peak world.

Moving People

For short trips, people will obviously walk much more. To arrive faster, you might want to consider:

If you already have a bike, this book may help with the conversion.

The most powerful conversion kit we've come across so far is the Cyclone because it does not use a hub motor and it retains the rear gear wheel. The EcoSpeeds seem worthwhile, too, although we haven't tested those like we did the Cyclone. 

Running a car will become very expensive and you'll wait in long lines to get gas for it — when it's available. The next section if for people determined to run a car in a post peak world. However, we think the days of the individual owning a car are numbered and we should quickly build mass transit systems, especially rail. (Rail is far more energy efficient than most other forms of transportation.)

Electric Cars

If you are determined to have a car and are mechanically inclined, you might want to convert your car to electric with the help of this book.

If your car it too heavy or you own an automatic, you'll need to buy a used car with a manual transmission first. These people have a good list of the cars that convert well. You might also want to peruse this Electric Vehicle (EV) album, some of the conversions are very creative and the electric vehicle community is unfailingly generous with their time and knowledge. Look for a chapter of the Electric Vehicle Association near you.

Chances are that if you've bought a Toyota Prius, you know that it's possible to purchase a battery pack to extend its electric-only range. A battery manufacturer with a good reputation and quality product is A123 Systems. Their battery pack will give your Prius enough electricity to operate another 12 miles on pure electricity. (You will generally get more range from a ground-up electric car; the Prius is heavy.)

As for commercial electric cars, we don't think it's wise to wait for them. They will enter the market in such small quantities and the demand will be so high that the probability of you getting one is going to be very small.

Moving Goods

For small loads going a short distance, you'll want either a wagon, a cart or a hand truck.

When the distance is more than a person or two can pull, you'll want a wagon that can be attached to an electric vehicle.

For very short distances, two people can move heavy objects using moving strap or a dolly.

For very big loads and long distances, that's where rail transport comes in; you'll find a very good overview here

Storing Gasoline

If you have an ICE (internal combustion engine) car, you may want to store gasoline or diesel as a backup to long lines and shortages. If you do, follow these safety guidelines or you may cause extensive fire damage. For example, I strongly recommend that you do not store gasoline in glass jugs in an apartment building, like this couple did.

Gasoline without stabilization will turn stale and form sedimentation. You may get lucky and be able to use old gasoline, like this person discovered, but it's better to keep rotating your gasoline every six months and use a gasoline stabilizer. When you use the gasoline, be careful not to start a static discharge fire. Purdue University describes how to prevent that from happening.

I've bought the 5 gallon red metal can and will be filling it with fuel on my next fill up.

Energy

Energy 

Electricity and The Grid

One of the most common questions I've been asked is, "Will we still have electricity after peak oil?"

The good news is that very little U.S. electricity is made directly from oil. The majority is made from coal, uranium and natural gas. Renewable sources provide only about 5% of the country's electricity (Renewables 2009 Global Status Report PDF).   

The bad news is that the grid, like all our systems, is still indirectly dependent on oil. Oil allows the maintenance workers to get in their trucks to make repairs, it enables new parts to be manufactured and delivered and so on. Moreover, the North American electricity grid is likely the largest machine ever built by man and like all the U.S. infrastructure, it's not being maintained adequately.

Here are some of the significant problems with the grid:

  • the grid is aging and is not being maintained well. The average age of many transformers is now past their rated lifespan, approximately 40 years. In many areas of the country transformers are being replaced only as they fail. Making things worse, there are no longer any North American manufacturers of the largest transformers. There is, on average, a blackout somewhere in the U.S. every 13 days (PDF); this will surely increase.
  • renewable energy hookups are backlogged. Often new renewable energy generation requires new lines to be built out to remote areas. The current permitting scheme is backlogged and forces the first applicant for new transmission lines to pay for entire cost (Sustainable Industries, May 2008). That's like asking the first person using the onramp to a highway to pay for the entire onramp. The result is that renewable energy buildout is occurring much slower than it needs to.
  • the grid will see increasing load as people switch to electric heating. In many areas of the country it is already cheaper to heat with electricity instead of fuel oil or natural gas. As more people switch to electric, the poorly maintained electric grid will be even more strained.
  • power stations will shut down as water becomes more scarce. As global warming reduces water available to power generating stations, they will be forced to shut down if they can't safely cool the equipment.
  • as natural gas and coal run out in North America, electricity costs will skyrocket in certain states. Since 49% of California's electricity is made from natural gas, we Californian's are headed for enormous price increases. And if you thought we had 250 years of coal left, well, that's just a myth.

Here is likely what we can expect:

  • more blackouts as the grid ages and equipment fails
  • less electricity available as nuclear plants reach the end of their life and are shut down. The nuclear industry in North America has very little ability to add many more reactors; it's been dormant for too long, the engineers are retiring and the supply chain is mostly broken.
  • more nuclear accidents as the regulatory agencies extend the operating licenses of nuclear plants beyond their design lifespan; in the least there will be more frequent unplanned shutdowns, which take enormous amounts of electricity off the grid at one time.
  • more deaths from hypothermia when blackouts occur in the winter; many home natural gas furnaces need electricity to start the flame.

Given the above, you should plan for an unreliable grid in the medium term. Start reducing your electricity requirements and install ways to make your own electricity now while the equipment is still available. Find another way to get heat in the winter time. Start by learning how to heat with wood effectively, then consider purchasing a wood stove or wood pellet stove. Heating with a fireplace will use up your wood too quickly because they are not efficient. Efficiency counts with wood, too, because split wood and wood pellets will continue to increase in price and decrease in availability. Many wood stoves use a fan to increase the efficiency of the burning and deliver heat over a wider area; just remember that the fan requires electricity, too.

Saving Energy When Cooking and Storing Foods

Consider cooking on your wood stove if you have one; if you are about to buy one, be sure to purchase one on which you can place pots.

When the sun is available, use a solar cooker to save on fuel. With a little guidance and patience, an entire meal can be cooked with the sun.

Although a modern refrigerator is dramatically more efficient than one from 20 years ago, they still require a consistent supply of electricity or the food will spoil. My 2004 Whirlpool, with just two people in the house using it mostly in the evening, uses about 1kWh each day. Sunfrost makes some of the most efficient refrigerators and freezers by using extra insulation and some common sense: they place the compressor above the food cabinet so the heat it generates is well away from the food. The most efficient refrigerator I've come across so far is a chest freezer that has been converted to be a refrigerator. The combination of extra insulation and the fact that cool air doesn't rise means this unit uses only 0.1kWh per day, or 1/10th of what mine uses! 

Drying food that you've grown will preserve its nutrients and allow you to stock up on food from the garden for the winter. Homemade sun-dried tomatoes, for instance, can add tremendous flavor to many dishes. You'll want some guidance and a solar food dryer. If you have extra watts in your energy budget, you may want an electric dehydrator — but be very sure you have the extra energy.

There are many techniques to keep food that don't involve freezing or canning.

When you have access to meat, dehydrating it can be another method for keeping it. An unreliable (or non-existent) supply of electricity will make the freezer a machine we "used to have when we were growing up." To keep meat jerky-style, try a packaged seasoning then learn to make your own with standard and exotic ingredients.

Friends of mine have a raw-food restaurant that my wife and I enjoy; you may want to consider eating raw food on occasion to cut down on the cooking energy you will need. 

Saving Energy Around the Home and Office

Before looking for ways to create or store your own energy, it's important to lower your energy use first. Start by installing a smart thermostat that will work will different heat sources, if you don't already have one.

For lowering your electricity loads, you'll want to measure the biggest users of energy with a Kill-A-Watt meter (the deluxe model adds more features). Buy The Home Energy Diet and learn where your time will be best spent.

Your computers and other electronic devices often use energy — even when they are off. For those, buy an autoswitching power strip that completely severs the connection to the household grid when the device is off. If you have many transformers (the big blocks of plastic attached to the power cord), use this power strip instead.

Compact Florescent Bulbs

Definitely change your lights from incandescent to the compact florescent type. Incandescent lights are inexpensive to buy but are so inefficient that only about 5% of the electricity they use is converted to light; the rest turns into heat.

Although the light quality of compact florescents has increased dramatically, the manufacturers still overstate the amount of light the bulbs give off. You can safely assume a compact florescent bulb rated at 100W will actually give off 80W worth of light were it an incandescent type. If you need a brighter bulb, try this one (make sure your light fixture can take this size!). Always buy a sample bulb before buying a case.

LED Bulbs

LED stands for light emitting diodes and are also known as solid-state lights. They generally are not yet bright enough to replace compact florescent bulbs even though they last 40,000 or more hours. (That's over 9 years at 12 hours a day!) They are also expensive.

If you'd like to experiment with them, you might want to try this regular bulb replacement. For hard-to-reach places, this LED floodlight might save you setting up ladders — but don't expect it to be very bright. The technology is getting better all the time and we hope to have better versions soon. Just because they are considered solid-state doesn't mean that heat, power surges, static electricity, dampness or poor design can't damage them.

If you have a Mag flashlight, you can purchase LED upgrade kits for the two-battery or three-battery types. The LEDs will last much longer than the typical incandescent bulbs with which they ship.

Heat Pumps

One of the most expensive ways to create heat is using resistance heating. Baseboard heaters, portable ceramic heaters and radiant heaters all convert electricity directly into heat in roughly a one-to-one ratio. A much more effective way to create heat is with a heat pump. Your refrigerator is a heat pump that removes heat from inside the food cabinet and dumps it to outside the cabinet. A heat pump for your home works similarly but instead takes heat from the outside air and dumps it into your home. (In the case of a geothermal heat pump, it takes the heat from the ground.)

Typical air-source heat pumps "create" three times the heat energy they use to operate. For geothermal heat pumps, the ratio can be even larger.

If you live in a cold climate, there are now cold climate heat pumps that operate in very low temperatures, sometimes as low as -20 degrees F.

The drawback of a heat pump is that it is a mechanical system. At some point, you will have trouble getting parts to repair it.

My wife and I have a Sanyo ductless mini-split heat pump (these do not require ducting; our 1974 home cannot take ducting unless we want the industrial look); we are very happy with its performance. Our electric bill seems to be lower than our neighbors'. Be aware that the Sanyo is not a cold-climate heat pump, so on the dozen days a year when the outside temperature falls below freezing, our unit fails to keep the house warm. We add more layers of clothing those days, but in retrospect I would have preferred to buy a larger unit or a cold climate heat pump. On the other hand, it is forced energy saving.

Solar Panels

Solar voltaic (PV) panels turn sunlight directly into electricity. If you can answer yes to all of the following questions, you should put panels on your roof right away:

  • do I have the roof or land area to mount the panels?
  • did I look at wind and geothermal too?
  • have I, or will I, lower my electricity use through conservation?
  • do I have the money to purchase them?

Reputable installers will often perform a calculation for you that will determine how large of a system you require to significantly lower, but not eliminate, your electric bill. They do this to lower the cost of the system and make it work for your budget.

Normally this is good customer service and good business, but in an energy-constrained world, you need to think differently. The question isn't, "How can I lower my bill as much as possible before the law of diminishing returns sets in?" The better question is, "How much electricity, when the grid becomes unreliable, do I need to run my household?" You will find your decisions will be different if you think that way.

There are several types of solar panel technologies right now. For most residential uses you will want to use polycrystalline cells rather than amorphous. Versus amorphous silicon, at the time of this writing (August 2008), polycrystalline cells still:

  • generate more power per square meter, which is important for small rooftops
  • have a demonstrated lifespan of 20 years before they degrade to 80% of their initial power rating
  • have a large number of supporting companies that know how to install them properly.

Concentrating Solar

Solar panels as they are currently manufactured require expensive (hundreds of millions of dollars) fabrication plants and a long supply chain to supply the minerals. Despite dramatic decreases in the cost of making certain kinds of solar panels (and lots more competition entering the market), demand will stay high as electricity rates increase and new manufacturing capacity is easily soaked up by the marketplace.

A different way to create electricity is via concentrating solar system, which turn heat into steam which then drives a generator.

Some groups are experimenting with small-scale concentrating solar systems and it's likely that using off-the-shelf parts building a concentrating solar system will soon become viable for residential applications.

Wind

Electricity from wind can be wonderful, but you may experience some obstacles attempting to erect a wind turbine:

  • you need to live in a relatively windy area
  • your local zoning must permit a wind tower tall enough to reach the wind
  • your neighbors may object to the noise

There are some innovative wind technologies now being marketed that may help with some of the obstacles above.

Battery Backup

When the grid becomes unreliable, you may want to store as much electricity as you can when it's available. This is true whether you have solar panels, a wind turbine or some other source of electricity.

Consider purchasing a battery backup system that will charge when the electricity is available and provide power when it isn't. A company with a reputation for long-lasting batteries is Rolls Battery Engineering.

The bigger the system you purchase, the more power you will be able to store. But the costs increase very quickly — be sure to identify the essential energy you will want.

If a large system is too costly or difficult to install, purchase a portable power pack that can be charged when the grid is on and the power used when the grid is off. The Duracell unit (made by Xantrex) will provide up to 7 hours of laptop computing or 30+ hours of LED lighting. See the write-up on the Duracell unit here.

Water

Water

Most people have a pumped water supply. Pumping water around the country is such a high user of electricity that should the grid fail, you will not get water out of your tap. (The sewage systems often rely on pumps, too.)

In fact, in California at least 6.5% of the state electricity is used for pumping water, over 15,000GWh each year. That's roughly equivalent to the total yearly output of two 1000GW nuclear reactors.

For a particularly sobering view of what life will look like when the grid fails, see this National Academies congressional testimony. The relevant part is reproduced below:

While the report does not speculate on the extended consequences of such an event, I have been asked to do so here and so offer this as personal opinion. Because our critical infrastructure is so completely integrated, with the power out for even a day or two, both food and water supply soon fail. Transportation systems would be at a standstill. Wastewater could not be pumped away and so would become a health problem. In time natural gas pressure would decline and some would loose gas altogether. Nights would be very dark and communications would be spotty or non-existent. Storage batteries would have been long gone from the stores if any stores were open. Work, jobs, employment, business and production would be stopped. Our economy would take a major hit. All in all our cities would not be very nice places to be. Some local power grids would get back up and so there would be islands of light in the darkness. Haves and have-nots would get involved. It would not be a very safe place to be either. Marshal law would likely follow along with emergency food and water supply relief. We would rally and find ways to get by while the system is being repaired. In time, the power will start to come back. Tentatively at first, with rolling blackouts and then with all it glory. Several weeks to months have passed, and the clean up would begin. This is one man’s opinion.

The testimony above describes what would happen with an infrastructure breakdown caused by a determined team of terrorists, thus it assumes the grid will come back up once the damage is repaired.

But what do we do when the grid is too poorly maintained to come back up?  

Capturing, storing and filtering water will become very important.

If you have access to a rooftop, you can redirect rainwater to some sort of storage vessel. If you can't bury the vessel, it will have to stay above ground. With some water barrels, you'll require a Siphon Pump and possibly a 10' or 25' fresh water hose.

You may want to consider installing a greywater system that allows you to reuse water from showers and sinks for other purposes. Don't confuse that with reclaimed water, which comes from sewage systems.

Make sure you have a water filter and plenty of replacement filters in case your tap water becomes unreliable.

Disaster Preparation

The kinds of benefits we've come to expect in an energy-rich society will gradually disappear. We will rely more on ourselves and our community for support. This is especially true when recovering from a disaster.

Earthquakes are the most devastating disaster, but floods make up over 75% of the disaster declarations each year. What is the chance that you will live through a disaster bad enough that your county is designated an official disaster area? It turns out it's pretty high:

Map shows number of U.S. Presidential Disaster Declarations by County
between 1965 and 2003. Click image for original USGS document (PDF).
Legend: Red > 10; Orange 6 - 10; Yellow 1 -5; White (no data).

 

The sorts of disasters that occur (some of them often) around the U.S. are:

Chemical Emergencies

Dam Failure

Earthquake

Fire or Wildfire

Flood

Hazardous Material

Heat Wave

Hurricane

Landslide

Nuclear Power Plant Emergency

Terrorism

Thunderstorm

Tornado

Tsunami

Volcano

Wildfire

Winter Storm

FEMA has a good disaster preparation guide that even includes videos. People who live in California should especially be prepared because the chance of an earthquake with a magnitude greater than 6.7 occurring in the next thirty years has been pegged at 99 percent by the United States Geological Survey and other earthquake groups.

Disaster Preparation Kit

A good disaster preparation kit will feed and protect you and your family for at least ten days. You will often see three days recommended, but after FEMA's performance during Katrina, when many people waited a week for water and food to arrive, we think that is far too low. Moreover, considering that you are preparing a kit for a post peak world, when systems will work even less effectively, we think ten days is the minimum. (Here in the Bay Area, the authorities regularly recommend seven days witnessing FEMA's Katrina performance.)

A disaster preparation kit should include:

Cleanup and Rebuilding

As oil becomes more expensive, many disaster areas will never be cleaned up and rebuilt. Damaged bridges made of concrete will be demolished and the rubble pushed aside but may take decades to rebuild, if ever. (Concrete and steel take enormous amounts of energy to make, particularly concrete. Many bridges built in the future will be made of wood again.)

If where you live relies heavily on bridges and other infrastructure for its proper functioning, and a disaster wipes them out, will you be nimble enough to find a new place to live?

If you do not have a fully stocked disaster kit and continue to live in a disaster-prone area (like California), are you being responsible?

Skills

Right now, just 2% of the U.S. population grows all of its food, and only 12% of the population is actually making things. These numbers will undoubtedly grow as the energy from oil is removed from the system.

Oil is an extraordinary substance. Not only is it used in countless plastic and pharmaceutical products, it's very energy dense. A single U.S. gallon of gasoline contains about 36,000 Wh of energy. That's the equivalent of a person working three weeks, eight hours a day!

Another way of thinking about the energy we get from oil is to consider that a few cupfuls can bring a 3-ton vehicle up a small hill. How far could you push an SUV, even on flat ground?

Every year, each U.S. citizen uses, on average:

  • 8,000 pounds of oil
  • 5,150 pounds of coal
  • 4,700 pounds of natural gas
  • 1/10th pound of uranium

If one “person-power” is 0.25 hp or 635 Btu/hr, this is the equivalent of 300 people working around the clock for each of us.

Now you can see that as fossil energy is depleted, people and not machines will be doing a lot more work.

Assess your existing skills. If you think there will be a glut of them (with a plummeting economy, it's not likely that the 22% of the economy currently devoted just to moving money around will need all those financial advisors, bankers and stockbrokers), move quickly to the productive side of the economy. In most cases, that means learn to make or repair or grow something.

Skills Needed in a Post-Peak World

Here are some of the skills that will likely be needed:

Start learning your chosen skill now and, if necessary, perform the first few projects for free so that you can build your resumé of successful projects.

Health

Americans are prodigious users of health care, spending up to 16% of the country's gross domestic product on it, even though almost 50 million people do not have health insurance. All that money and it still only ranks 37th in the world's healthcare systems, according the the World Health Organization.

This is going to get worse. We can expect:

  • the number of uninsured to skyrocket as layoffs continue
  • the quality of care to decrease as budgets are squeezed from high energy costs
  • major breakdowns in an expensive, unsustainable system

If you have special health needs, you must take action now to secure access as best you can to the services and products you rely on.

Everyone should consider purchasing a copy of Where There Is No Dentist, Where There Is No Doctor and Where Women Have No Doctor. If you want to read them online, the PDFs are here.

The medical community is just as reliant on oil — and as unprepared for its peak — as the rest of society. 

Ask your doctor and local pharmacist whether they are prepared for electricity blackouts and brownouts. If they aren't, ask them when they will be and how they will get ready. (You may have to point them to this site.)

Get Fit

Probably the best thing you can do is to get fit. Begin putting exercise into your routine if it isn't already. Your life will include more work in the future as the energy from oil declines.

More Peak Oil and Health Resources

Health After Oil

Peak Oil Medicine

Office

With the grid about to become more unreliable, you will need a battery-backup system to continue working when it goes off, or at least to shut down the computer safely until the power comes back on. 

Computers

Laptop computers use far less energy than desktop computers. A desktop can often require several hundred watts (especially if you have a power-hungry graphics card), while a laptop can often use as little as 40W during normal operation. Laptops are designed to be energy misers so that they can run longer off their internal battery. 

Speaking of internal batteries, you will want to purchase extra ones in case they become difficult to get. 

Keeping Data Safe

Hard drives, being mechanical devices, will break down and take your data with them. A system that uses multiple drives will make sure that when one drive fails the data is not lost. You will need to purchase extra hard drives for that system to work. If you'd like the data to be available from anywhere on your home network, purchase the network sharing attachment.

 

Currency

As the economy declines, the percentage of fake currency in circulation will increase, just as it has in economies that have experienced collapse (like Argentina). Although banks have machines that scan incoming currency for counterfeit notes, that does not mean that you can trust a bank to give you authentic notes. Every time you receive currency, take a moment to scan it for signs that it is fake. The United States Secret Service has a good page that describes how to detect fake currency.

The U.S. Treasury provides guidelines on how to respond when you think you have been given counterfeit currency:

  • Do not put yourself in danger.
  • Do not return the bill to the passer.
  • Delay the passer with some excuse, if possible.
  • Observe the passer's description - and their companions' descriptions - and write down their vehicle license plate numbers if you can.
  • Contact your local police department OR call your local U.S. Secret Service Office. EMAIL US at this address, or contact the U.S. Secret Service through your local Field Office found in the U.S. Secret Service Locator.
  • Write your initials and date in the white border area of the suspected counterfeit note.
  • DO NOT handle the counterfeit note. Place it inside a protective cover, a plastic bag, or envelope to protect it until you place it in the hands of an IDENTIFIED Secret Service Agent.
  • Surrender the note or coin ONLY to a properly identified police officer or a Secret Service Special Agent, or mail it to your nearest U.S. Secret Service field office.

We're not experts on detecting counterfeit currency, however, people who do it regularly (as FerFal describes in his blog Surviving in Argentina) notes that there are in general two ways to detect counterfeit notes. The first is to use a ultra violet light similar to that described here. The second way is to examine each security feature the note has as described on the Secret Service page above or at FerFal's post here. FerFal does not use nor does he recommend as the sole test a counterfeit detection pen.