Energy 108: Espresso, Fossil Fuels and the Transition Conumdrum

The following really does have to do with things energy.

It has already been a fabulous day here at Darwin’s View. To begin: my morning latte. After two days of no caffeine—preparation for a too familiar, routine procedure—that limp, low energy feeling of blah was replaced by the joyous surge of I-can-do-anything espresso. Ideas popped and surged directly through my pencil and onto paper. It was 4:55AM and I knew work would be done. I was charged up and ready to go!

Our off-grid house, not so much. It’s been cloudy here in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Heavy clouds, full of moisture, that hold no hope of a “cloud edge” sun-oomph into the solar panels, rein. Last night, we knew the generator would turn on. It was just a question of when. Carl contemplated the dilemma. Our old system (#1) battery level was at 57 percent. Our new system (#2) was at 80 percent. And the water heater was due to come on. Thus, before rolling over to go to sleep, Carl switched all the energy load to the new system. 

“Why?” you might ask. Because the old system is smaller (4.8kW) and has lead acid batteries. Lead acid batteries shouldn’t be taken down below 50% of their capacity. It’s not good for them.⁠1 The new system . . . works differently. The batteries hold 22kW.⁠2 And they are salt water batteries. They can go all the way down to zero, if need be, no harm done. That’s why Carl tends to put the full house load onto the new system at night when there hasn’t been a lot of sun, in hopes that the generator won’t turn on in the middle of the night. (The generator is directly outside of our bedroom. Illogically placed? Perhaps, if one’s goal is a good night of sleep. If one wants to be on top of things power, it couldn’t be better placed. The roar of the generator, or lack thereof, keeps us on the pulse of our system.) 

This morning at 4:40AM, prior to turning on the espresso machine, I went down to check on the batteries in the basement, and then back up again to report the results. I hovered over Carl. He opened an eye. 

“Good morning. The old system is at 55 percent, the new is at 54, the default button is blinking, is it okay to make an espresso?” 

Carl mumbled that the default blinky, blinky was nothing to worry about. I took that to be Carl’s imprimatur that it was okay to go forth and make my morning elixir. I did. I went about my morning routine of espresso making, turkey siting, bedewed field admiration, cat TLC, eventually wending my way up to my office to luxuriously sip my cafe latte, bite into a homemade banana muffin,⁠3 and gear up to write. At which point, the house burped. The lights blinked off with a low buzz sound of alarm, then on, another buzz. Power off buzz. Power on buzz. Off. And on. And Carl roused himself out of bed and down to the basement. 

I looked over his shoulder, awed at how he knows how to click through the various options of our systems’ control panels. Aux and amps. The enter, exit, scroll up and down buttons. Click, click, click. His mission: to override the “Under DC voltage” fault which required increasing the voltage of the batteries, which meant charging them, which meant getting the generator going. By now, I have learned not to ask why the generator didn’t turn on all by itself. 

N.B.: The other way to react to the situation would have been to find the load that was causing the demand and turn it off. But at 5AM this wasn’t a priority.⁠4  Arguably this might be the same reason the generator didn’t turn on. Because who would be up on this foggy, wet morning with the dew blanketed field, Schtude crowing since 4:30, the birds singing their morning wake up, let’s celebrate the summer solstice!? The longest day of the year!? Get up and get going!

I drank my latte while Carl flicked through the various options. I mentally reminded myself to remind Carl to write up the process so that, if an “Under DC voltage” ever happens when he’s not here, and/or we have house-sitters, I and/or the house-sitters would have a clue what to do. And still no generator. But the red lights weren’t blinking anymore. Seconds passed. The house lights stopped going blinky, blinky, too  . . . The buzz sound silenced . . . And click! The beautiful sound of the generator turning on.

Which brings me to the point of all this: fossil fuels. They do save the day, and are great for emergencies but, just as heroin is a symptom, an attempt to fill a void, so are fossil fuels. And just as methadone isn’t a cure, neither is the continued use of fossil fuels. The era of fossil fuels is over, we just haven’t recognized it yet. The market is beginning to do so. And then? What are we going to do?

The first step to cure us of our fossil fuel addiction is to admit we have a problem. Too many of us are unwilling to change our habits, give up our conveniences and comforts. Case in point: my daily cafe latte. 

The good news: we don’t have to go cold turkey. Yet. 

The next step is admitting that it is within our power to change. And that the greenest and most its-up-to-you choice is don’t use in the first place. Become aware of the cost savings of not turning on that light, and the effects of buying that morning cup of coffee in a to go cup.⁠5 Or of turning on an espresso machine. Because, my protests aside, the reason we had our little incident this morning was because I turned on the espresso machine. All our demand load was on the new system—salt water—not the old system—lead acid. Lead acid batteries (like fossil fuels) are ready when you are. Bring on the surge of demand, it’s ready! Salt water batteries (like renewables) require . . . gentler treatment. This morning the water heater was on. Then I made my espresso, lowering the battery level. And then the water pump went on. The new, salt water battery system couldn’t carry the load and shut down. A pause. And then, the system turned itself back on, ready to carry on. But still, the too heavy load. A jolt of demand. It turned off again. Etc.. 

Was it the end of the world? No. Renewables and salt water batteries work. We just have to adjust our habits to accommodate them. 

Our past lives have depended on fossil fuels but now it’s time to embrace the future and the transition to renewables. That transition has already begun. We have the technologies. We have only to do what we did with fossil fuels in the 19th century: invest in renewable technologies, full bore. And in an emergency? We can fall back on fossil fuels, thereby using them to create our world anew. That’s what Exxon/Mobil did when it signed that contract for solar panels to help them meet the energy requirements of fracking. (See Energy 106).

We can manage our technology, or become victims of it. The choice is ours, and the Clock is ticking. From a team of physicists writing to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-mon regarding the Doomsday Clock.

This post is already been too long but if you have nothing better to do than turn out the lights, call Governor Sununu and tell him you support solar energy in NH.⁠6  And⁠7 after you’ve called him, maybe call all your representative, local, state and national, and demand a full bore ahead change. Because that’s the only thing that will save us.

And, in all your free time, here’s a podcast by a woman who spoke at the DubHub this past Monday. I had a couple of issues with her but, overall, she’s got a great presentation.


1 You want details? Ask Carl.

2 Again, details require Carl. Some might suggest I be more involved in these details. But as I have pointed out ad nasueum, do I really have to say it again?: When we moved up here for our little, part-time experiment, when asked, I said I wanted to flick a switch and have it work. Carl said he wanted to know why it worked. Et voila! Ask Carl.


4 The offender? Likely as not it was the water heater. At 1AM. Drawing 500 watts. For 6 hours. No, it makes no sense to be off-grid with a water heater that insists on turning on in the middle of the night. But the company of this most-efficient-ever water heater explains that the heater has its routine, and it’s best not to interrupt it because it only means the heater will have to be on that much longer to get the water up to temperature. This being a conundrum for our upcoming Geek Weekend.