By Peter Moore, Business Director
A popular daily well-being program here is the Off-the-Grid Systems Tour. Breitenbush is an off-the-grid village, a Wildland/Urban Interface (WUI), and because we receive no power or other utilities from outside, we must finance, design, build, operate and maintain the systems that provide our electricity, domestic water, geothermal heat and septic, plus information and communication services. People fascinated by energy design find a lot to get excited about when they visit and explore these systems at Breitenbush.
When I think about these systems, I think in terms of flow dynamics—flows of water and heat through pipes, of electricity through wires or microwaves through atmosphere. That sounds simple, but the simple tends towards complexity in human systems; or, as an old saying goes, the devil is found in the details. Energy questions we have dealt with since we acquired the ghost resort in 1977 have included: What technologies do we need? How much is enough? How redundant should be their fail-safes? How to manage these systems? How to document and maintain them? Why and when should we upgrade them? Etc. There is sharp debate about these questions within the culture of our worker-owned co-op. All voices are heard and considered relevant but some voices argue the merits of intentional simplicity while others argue for redundant, automated complexity. Such debates have shaped our systems and indeed, our co-op over the decades. It ain’t been easy.
When we began, the decisions were so much less nuanced than they are now, 41 years later. For example, the land came with its original cast-iron turbine (patented 1895, we call it Eleanor), so we decided to use that as the basis for our hydroelectric power production. And it still turns on an ironwood bearing at the bottom of the penstock, churning out hydro power just as it did in the 1920s. To this functioning antique we added a diversion pond, flume and power house with modern generator, and now produce 42 kilowatts of 3-phase high voltage (480 volts) electricity, sourced from the Breitenbush River. We distribute this energy via underground cables, transforming it down to household (110 volts) power for common usage. That’s one system.
In the beginning we bought an old (1946) GMC cable rig well driller. The idea was simple enough: drill geothermal wells, install down-hole heat exchangers to capture a million or more BTUs, and distribute those BTUs into 100 buildings. We bought hundreds of 100-year-old cast iron radiators for the price of scrap and installed them in those 100 buildings where they do exactly what they did before we got them, radiate heat into buildings. Similar stories exist regarding domestic drinking water and treatment of septic, as well as information services.
Twenty years into our collective experience we added a PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) and HMI (Human Machine Interface) to the mix. These modern components allow our Systems Team to both monitor and control complex systems from remote locations using computerized technology. They also allow us to graph trends in our systems’ performance, helping us to better understand them over time, which in turn helps us to predict and solve problems before they become crises. These computerized components are not without controversy. Recently, the discussion became so heated between members of our community that we decided to conduct a “technical audit,” inviting five highly skilled engineers from the ‘real world’ to assess whether or not these automation features, developed to control, manage and trend-graph essential systems, are reasonable and relevant to our situation. Their answers are encouraging. We’re told that, yes, our automated monitoring systems are robust and appropriately redundant, given our off-grid location, ensuring ongoing functioning and safety for us and our guests.
In the realm of human experience and relationships, being in the flow while operating at peak performance encourages a miracle of consciousness, bringing forth the art and the science of our sophisticated life-form. Same with utilities. The challenges of living in this WUI in the wilderness, using our Breitenbush form of messy democracy, have somehow forced us to develop a highly sophisticated set of systems that operate the flow of water, heat, electricity and microwaves at local peak performance, providing a miracle of human comfort and safety for all who enjoy the springs. The process has somehow made us better people. Meanwhile, these systems together have become the electromechanical heartbeat of our community.