How I Gave Up Alternating Current

The walls are buzzing. I know this because I have a magnet implanted in my hand and whenever I reach near an outlet I can feel them. I can feel fortresses of industry miles away burning prehistoric hydrocarbons by the megaton. I can feel the searing pain and loss of consciousness from when I was shocked by exposed house wiring as a boy. I can feel the deep cut of the power bill when I was living near the poverty line. I can feel the cold uncertainty of the first time the power went out due to a storm when I was a child. How long before the delicate veil of civilization turns to savagery with no light nor heat nor refrigeration?

The grid, smart or not, is wasteful. Power generation produces 32% of all greenhouse gases, more than any other economic sector. Most power in the US is generated by burning coal, immediately squandering 67% of its energy, then run through a steam turbine, losing another 50%, then sent across transmission lines, losing another 5%, then to charge a DC device like a cell phone another 20% is lost in conversion. This means for 100 watts of coal or oil burned my phone gets a mere 25. In this light a solar panel that is 18% efficient doesn’t seem that bad.

Instead of ever increasing our energy production, what if we focused instead on reducing our consumption? I expect power will be at a premium in our first space colonies, and DC only from solar cells. So, I embarked on an experiment to see if I could survive without the luxury of alternating current.

Powerplants

In 2013 United States utilities generated 4,066 TWh of electricity and collected $370 billion in revenue. Of this, 70% came from fossil fuel sources like coal and natural gas. Nuclear has a strong showing of 20% and “renewables” are the other 10%, the majority of which is hydroelectric. In fact, the 5 largest power plants in the world are all hydroelectric. Three Gorges Dam alone generates 22,500MW, 10x the capacity of a typical US coal plant. In the US the highest consuming segment is residential, over commercial and industrial, with average use of 909 KWh per month per customer at a cost of $110.

My home city of Los Angeles has peak power demand of 6,125MW. Most of it is imported from coal plants in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. The city generates about 25% of its own power from 4 local natural gas facilities, and another 11% comes from Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, whose twin reactors generate 2,242MW with 193 fuel assemblies. Each assembly contains around 200 fuel rods and each fuel rod contains roughly 400 half-inch Uranium pellets, which are 3.5-5% Uranium-235. That is about 75 tons of Uranium, which must be changed out every 2 years. Still, I prefer it to coal.

Diablo Canyon with its twin reactors employs 1200 people and generates 7% of California’s power

Maintaining these facilities takes thousands of workers and outages are still common. Los Angeles uses overhead power lines that are unsightly and vulnerable to auto accidents. In 2005 a DWP worker accidentally cut a line that severed power to half of Los Angeles. In 2013 Diablo Canyon was forced to shut down due to an influx of jellyfish. Diablo Canyon is also built less than a mile from a major fault line. The largest photovoltaic power plant in the world, Topaz Solar Farm cost $2.5 billion and while its “nameplate capacity” is 550MW, due to solar’s low capacity factor really generates a paltry average of 125MW.

Now I don’t need any of them. I am electrically self reliant. My home life runs comfortably on a single 100W solar panel, which cost $150 and was available on Amazon Prime. I tracked down a few manufacturers in China who all said it costs around $40 to make. The US for some reason leverages massive tariffs on Chinese solar panels, so they ship them through Malaysian customs. Why do the politicians even bother?

For storage a $65 lead acid deep cycle battery does the trick. It’s 12V so can be charged directly from the solar panel, and holds 420Wh, way more than I use in a day. That’s $0.15 / Wh so I don’t see why everyone is so excited about Tesla charging $0.43 / Wh for the Powerwall, sans inverter and installation.

My New Power Source

Note 12V -> 5V Buck Converter; Voltmeter monitors battery charge

I have been living on this system for a few months now and am thrilled how well it works. Every morning I arise and marvel at the free, reliable energy generated in a cosmic fusion reactor and beamed to my apartment through space. Of course, solar would have been prohibitively expensive and complicated had I not reduced my consumption to a fraction of what the average home uses. Here is how I did it.

Kitchen

Kitchens are expensive and dirty. This home manufacturing center has been by far the most liberating to eliminate. They are the greediest consumers of power, water, and labor and produce the most noise and garbage of any room. Moreover, they can be made totally unnecessary with a few practical life hacks.

First, I never cook. I am all for self reliance but repeating the same labor over and over for the sake of existence is the realm of robots. I utilize soylent only at home and go out to eat when craving company or flavor. This eliminates a panoply of expensive tools and rotting ingredients I would need to spend an unconscionable amount of time sourcing, preparing, and cleaning.  It also gives me an incentive to explore the city’s fine restaurants and ask friends out to eat. In fact, I find soylent has made me more social when it comes to food. I can spend the money I saved from groceries and take out to buy a friend lunch or dinner. When soylent 2.0 reached private beta, I was thrilled to learn that thanks to aseptic processing the product does not require refrigeration, and will still keep its nutrition for at least a year. It tastes better cold but I think it’s fine warm. Getting rid of my fridge was one of the greatest days of my life. Nevermore will I listen to that damn compressor moan.

I have not set foot in a grocery store in years. Nevermore will I bumble through endless confusing aisles like a pack-donkey searching for feed while the smell of rotting flesh fills my nostrils and fluorescent lights sear my eyeballs and sappy love songs torture my ears. Grocery shopping is a multisensory living nightmare. There are services that will make someone else do it for me but I cannot in good conscience force a fellow soul through this gauntlet.

I buy my staple food online like a civilized person. It takes me mere seconds to order enough soylent for a month, and version 2.0 does not require any preparation, so I got rid of my noisy blender. At less than $2.50 / meal it also saves me loads of cash, and I appreciate the use of more soy and less rice, finally bringing a nutritionally optimal PDCAAS score of 1.0 while improving the taste and especially texture. I also think it’s crazy cool that some of the ingredients are made by algae rather than water-guzzling pesticide-spraying farms.

soylent20.png

Soylent 2.0 from private beta

Next, I switched from beer to red wine. I buy with Saucey so I don’t have to use awful retail stores. Decent red wine is surprisingly cheap, pleasurable, and does not require refrigeration. I also end up drinking less liquid overall, meaning fewer bottles to throw away (I average about one trashbag / month) and fewer trips to the bathroom, meaning for a comparable amount of alcohol, when wine is consumed instead of beer there is less electrolyte loss and less after effects.

For coffee and tea I use a butane stove. It is much cheaper and more energy efficient than a Keurig, which can use $160 of electricity / year. It doesn’t waste endless non-recyclable “K-Cups” and I find heats water about as fast. Also fire is much more beautiful than blinking LEDs.

Space Stove

With no fridge, no dishes, no microwave, no oven, no range, no dishwasher, no utensils, no pests, no cleaning products nor dirty rags, my life is considerably simpler, lighter and cleaner than before. I think it was a bit presumptuous for the architect to assume I wanted a kitchen with my apartment and make me pay for it. My home is a place of peace. I don’t want to live with red hot heating elements and razor sharp knives. That sounds like a torture chamber. However, it’s not a total loss. I was able to use the cabinets to store part of my book collection.

Transportation

Without sustainable power production electric cars are not that great. Charging an 85kWh Tesla would still burn the equivalent of 10 gallons of oil at the power plant.[a] With a range of 265 miles the Tesla Model S really uses 26.5 mpg, barely over the average american fuel economy of 23.6 mpg.

Public transportation is leagues more efficient and I love trains. Still, the energy costs are substantial and the infrastructure requires a lot of maintenance. I take Uber around the city and to work (most of them are Priuses which use DC motors so I’m good there). I take the bus often too. It’s pretty good in LA. Runs on CNG.

Perhaps a cross between a subway car and an automobile: some sort of self-driving electric pod that carried a dozen people in a UberPool model would improve on this. Either that, robot horse cheetahs, or drone multicopters.

The streets were originally made for people. The automobile’s takeover has destroyed more than millions of lives (cars have killed far more Americans than war and AIDS combined), it has trampled the prime conduit of community in our cities and exiled us to the indoors to sit in front of televisions. I hope the next generation of transportation technologies will give us back the streets.

Topaz Solar Farm

For today though, Uber works pretty well. Traffic isn’t so bad if you’re sitting in the back with a book, and since I buy everything I need online I’m never running errands, which makes UberPool cheaper and more convenient than car ownership. I also found myself constantly distracted by my phone while driving, and knew other drivers were too. So, with a simple lifestyle adjustment I find Uber eliminates the pain points of transportation much the same way soylent eliminates the pain points of food. I miss my car sometimes, and I miss frying burgers, but I know both behaviors would have eventually caught up with me. After two years of relying on soylent my blood and body metrics are still optimal, and I no longer have to worry about drunk or distracted driving.

It’s easy to demonize “big food corporations”, but the majority of America’s calories come from home-cooked staple meals. Most of us are driving drunk when it comes to how we eat. At some point we are going to have to admit that we suck at cooking, and we suck at driving. Let’s automate them already so we can focus on art, and science, and exploration. Food can be art, and driving can be exploration, but it’s mostly manufacturing and commuting. I don’t miss them.

All of my scars are either from cooking or driving. I noticed I have not collected any new ones lately.

Computing

Today’s computers are remarkably efficient. But we could always do better. I winced as I ditched my homebuilt desktop for a cheap, low power Intel NUC. Giving up my tower for a mini PC felt like when I lost my beloved ‘86 Ford F250 and started riding around in Uber Priuses. It’s the future. But it still stings a little.

The NUC and my displays, 2x AOC 17in USB DisplayLink monitors, are amazingly efficient and serve all my daily needs. When I want some real computing power I SSH or RDP in to an EC2 instance and have all the power I need. Intel has really stepped up their graphics game too. The HD 6000 integrated GPU runs League of Legends and Kerbal Space Program great. Skylake should bring further improvements this Fall. I power the NUC directly from the battery since it runs on 12V and draws less than 1A of current even with the monitors. That’s 72Wh if I use it for 6 hours straight, which my panel produces in less than an hour in direct sunlight, an abundant resource in Los Angeles. No more power blocks, wall warts, or rats nests of cables. My Android phone charges at 5V and uses less than 10Wh / day, which isn’t a lot but I still think is atrocious for what it does. My old Nokia would run for a week on that.

DC Desktop

Clothing

I enjoy doing laundry about as much as doing dishes. I get my clothing custom made in China for prices you would not believe and have new ones regularly shipped to me. Shipping is a problem. I wish container ships had nuclear engines but it’s still much more efficient and convenient than retail. Thanks to synthetic fabrics it takes less water to make my clothes than it would to wash them, and I donate my used garments.

The overwhelming majority of clothing Americans buy is made overseas anyways. I just buy direct. And container ships are amazingly efficient.

It bothers me immensely that all clothing is hand made. Automation is woefully absent from the textile industry, but I don’t think it always will be. For now a few new t shirts and jeans per month is not very offensive. I certainly buy less clothing overall than a typical consumer. Synthetic fabrics are easy to recycle and I believe will soon be made with biofuels. Still, this area needs some work.

Intermountain Power Plant in Utah cost $4.5 billion, generates 1900MW, and is operated by LA DWP

Climate Control

In Los Angeles climate control is leaving the windows open. My apartment came with a Nest but I removed it and have not felt the need for either heating or air conditioning. Even in less temperate locales I wonder if we really need to define our environment to within single degree Fahrenheit. I am not so controlling, but I do want to take back the rooftops from those horrible HVAC units.

Lighting

As mandated by modern building codes my apartment building uses harsh overhead LED lighting. At first I switched to electroluminescent wire, which shines much more evenly and calmly while being remarkably efficient. However, it uses AC so I rewired with adjustable RGB LEDs, 12V so they can also be run straight from the battery. I love being able to change the color and brightness remotely and quickly found a more comfortable hue and strength.

Entertainment

I am blessed with nice weather, a nice view, and a full bookcase so see no need for a noisy, unsightly television, a black hole that living rooms arrange themselves around like an altar. I prefer to read, study, code, or go for a walk to one of several parks in my neighborhood. However I do enjoy movies so I set up an LED projector, a “RIF6 Cube”, which blew me away by how great the picture quality is for the price, size and power consumption. I use an Amazon Fire TV Stick which supports Miracast so anything my phone can play my projector can play. I’ve never had cable TV but I was finally able to fully ditch my ISP and Wi-Fi router and use an LTE hotspot. T Mobile provides unlimited data if you’re on their network so since my apartment is near one of their towers it works almost as well as cable.

The RIF6 Cube is simpler, cheaper, and more flexible than a television

Conclusion

The whole retrofit cost $1450, which is steep but I will make it back in due time since I don’t pay for an ISP bundle or power. To me the real upside is the pleasure in being electrically self reliant. Nightmares about being trapped in a coal mine have been replaced by pleasant dreams of basking in the sun’s glory. It got a little weird when I had to prove my existence to a local government and they asked for a utility bill. Good thing I still use water, for now.

If you can strip wires you can set this up yourself. Everything I used is available on Amazon except for soylent 2.0, which is only available at soylent.com.

The first space colonies will have no coal power plants. I am ready. For now though, as I am driven through the gleaming city, my hunger peacefully at bay, I have visions of the parking lots and grocery stores replaced by parks and community centers, power plants retrofitted as museums and galleries. Traffic and trash and pollution will evaporate, if only we are willing to adapt some routines.

R. Buckminster Fuller thought we should connect all the world’s power grids. What if instead we could all connect through the sun?

edit: follow up post The Appeal of Outsourcing

Footnotes

[a] 85kWh = 306MJ

Grid loss is 75% (67% lost on burning * 50% steam turbine loss * 5% transmission line loss * 80% “supercharger” efficiency)

Then need 306MJ / 0.25 = 1201MJ of oil at the plant

Petroleum is 32.4 MJ/L

1201MJ  / 32.4 MJ/L = 37L

37L = 10 gallons