Modeling Sustainable Integrated Systems

Creating sustainabiity by linking people and systems together

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By becoming a part of the Windward community, you’ll be helping to demonstrate the relevance of the self-reliant lifestyle, and you’ll help to enable Windward to further it’s research into cutting-edge sustainable community technology.

The first part of Windward’s mission involves preserving traditional skills and sustainable systems so they can serve as viable components of our children’s future. This is important because the culture of a thousand generations can be lost in just one.

We believe that these skills must be preserved and practiced, not just at Windward but in many places if they are to survive to serve future needs. Consequently, many of the skills and activities described on this website are not unique to Windward, although we do believe that Windward offers a rare opportunity to experience and practice those skill within a community setting.

Rather, it’s the second part of our mission that truly sets Windward apart, and that gives long term significance to what we’re doing.

Currently that cutting edge work is focused on three areas:

  • the conversion of biomass to automotive fuel,
  • the use of worms and BSF larva to process food waste, and
  • developing an effective cooperative community structure.

turning biomass into car fuel

turning biomass into car fuel

1) The Conversion of Biomass into Automotive Fuel

Methanol is a single carbon alcohol industrially produced from natural gas in huge reactors. During the 90’s, car companies such as Ford, General Motors, Mazada and Daimler-Chrysler all made Flexible Fuel Vehicles that would run on M85 which is a blend of 85% methanol and 15% regular gasoline, and by 1997 there were more than 20,000 M85 FFVs on the road.

Since then the federal tax subsidies have changed to where the emphasis is now on ethanol based fuels, with the result that since 1997 auto manufactures have switched over to designing for ethanol based fuels, but that’s politics, not sound ecological practice. For example, when a FFV is running on M85 it produces about one-half the smog forming emissions of a comparable vehicle running on gasoline.

What Califonia’s M85 program proved is that methanol is both a practical and a desirable replacement for gasoline, a demonstration that leaves us with the challenge of developing community-sized facilities to convert the biomass currently going into our nation’s landfills into methanol.

wood chips ready for the reactor

wood chips ready for the reactor

In the past ten years, there have been major advancements in the process technology involved in making methanol from biomass, progress such that we’re convinced that it’s now possible to create a garage-size plant capable of converting things like junk mail and wood waste into car fuel, electricity and heat.

In our home county, logging produces some 15,000 tons of slash a year—”slash” is the parts of the tree that don’t go to the lumber mill—material which is pushed up in great piles and just burned. Converting even a fraction of that material into fuel would enable our rural county to become independent of foreign oil, and the implications of that are staggering.

Our country is currently engaged in a war aimed at insuring our access to the fuel needed to maintain our consumer lifestyle, and at the same time we’re landfilling and wasting huge quantities of biomass that could be converted to automotive fuel using existing technology. Which is why we believe that it’s so important to develop a human scale model of the technology needed to create “home grown” fuel, not in a proprietary profit-seeking way, but rather in an open-source community-building way that can be replicated thousands of times and go a long way toward ending our dependence on foreign oil.

the new workshop where we'll
construct and test the conversion equipment

the new workshop where we’ll construct and test the conversion equipment

What could possibly be a more worthwhile goal for an intentional community than modeling a sustainable way to keep our troops and dollars at home?

This isn’t an easy project to undertake, but it’s well within the scope of our community to construct and operate such a plant, and much of the work we’ve done over the past two years has been undertaken in part because it was relevant to this mission.

For example, the acquisition of heavy-duty equipment to chip up forest waste was undertaken in part to address the need to have a uniform feedstock around which we could design the processing reactor shown in the picture.

Likewise, the construction of the new workshop was undertaken in part so that we would have room to set up the metal working equipment needed to fabricate the framework that will hold the equipment that does the conversion.

Also, this process gives off a good deal of heat, energy which we’ll use to power a steam-driven electical generator that will put electricity back onto the grid through a grid-tie inverter.

hydronic tubing in place prior to pouring the workshop's concrete slab floor

hydronic tubing in place prior to pouring the workshop’s concrete slab floor

The steam engine in turn needs a large heat sink in order to condense the exhaust steam back into water, which is why the floors of the new workshop have been fitted with hydronic tubing so that the heat which would otherwise go to waste can be used to heat the workshop, and of course the hot tub. 😉

When the system is up and running, we’ll be gathering waste wood from our forest, converting it into chips and processing it in our reactor plant to produce:

  • methanol to power our vehicles,
  • electricy to be stored on the grid, and
  • heat to warm our homes.

We’ve already made substantial progress towards this goal, but there’s still a lot of work to be done before this project is completed. If this is the sort of work that you’d be excited to be a part of, please let us know.

preparing to turn vegetable waste into earthworms

preparing to turn vegetable waste into earthworms

2) The Use of Earthworms and BSF Larva to Process Food Waste

One of the fundamentals of sustainable system integration is that the waste from one system has to form the input for another system. For example, the waste produced by our sheep constitutes an important input for our gardens, a relationship which we take easy advantage of by overwintering the sheep in the main garden area since the less work we have to do ourselves, the more sustainable the process.

In most instances, this feeding the output of one part of our biological system into another is a rather straight forward process, but when it comes to effectively utilizing kitchen scraps, we have to insure that pathogenic factors are not allowed to bridge from one system to the next.

For example, kitchen and resturant scraps are usually fed to pigs, and health standards require that the slops be fully cooked before they’re given to the pigs. The goal being to prevent the pigs from taking on pathogenic organisms which could then infect people when those pigs are later slaughtered and eaten.

adult earthworms ready to go

adult earthworms ready to go

While using pigs to recyle food scraps is efficient, this traditional method of two-node recycling poses a notable health hazard because pigs and humans are so similar that the parasites which attack one are usually able to attack the other—not good.

Instead, Windward is working to develop a recycling path that incorporates animals that are so different from humans that it be conceptually impossible for any one pathagen to make it across the barriers created by such widely different biological forms as humans, earthworms, fly larva, fish and ducks.

What we’re working on is a twin path, three-node form of recycling:

  • one path for vegetable waste, and
  • a second path for high protein waste.

The composting of vegetable waste—everything from potato peels to coffee grounds—is widely practiced, and while that will produce quality garden compost, there is a better way to go. By allowing earthworms to take on the tast of first extracting the food value from the vegetable waste, you end up with two products: high quality compost and lots of earthworms.

Periodically the earth worm beds are dug up and the mature compost separated from the larger worms. While regular composting will produce a good additive for your garden, this form of compost will have been profoundly enriched for having been passed through the digestive track of the worms where their digestive juices will have broken down various mineral complexes into forms which are more readily absorbed by plants.

The compost, which will contain large numbers of baby worms will work wonders in the garden, and the larger worms will serve as a high protein supplemental food for fish and fowl.

mature larva ready to be fed to ducks or fish

mature larva ready to be fed to ducks or fish

High protein food scraps present a more complicated challenge which we believe can best be solved by using the larva of the Black Soldier Fly to consume the waste. These flies are very different than the common housefly. For one thing, the adult fly does not have a mouth and therefore has no incentive to feel on anything be it wholesome or foul. The adult fly only lives for three days during which it focus exclusively on finding a mate and laying its eggs before it dies.

The larva take from between two weeks and six months to grow to full size, depending on how well they’re fed and the temperature of their containment. Once they’ve grown to full size, they crawl off and up looking for a place to undergo the transition from larva to fly. In the case of a properly designed containment, this search leads them to climb a ramp that leads them into a collection bucket from where they can be gathered once a day and fed to either ducks or fish as a high protein high fat diet supplement.

There is some waste generated when you prepare food bought at your local grocery store, scraps that add up to perhaps 10% of the total. What is missed is the much larger amount of waste that was generated at time of slaughter or when the produce was culled and selected for shipment. Yields are commonly in the range of 50%, which means that for every pound of food delivered to the store, there was another pound that had to be disposed of.

Because we slaughter our own animals, and pick our own produce, the actual amount of resources we’re working with is double what there would be if we purchased commercial food. By using earthworms and black soldier fly larva to turn that waste into high-protein feedstocks for fish and fowl, we greatly increase the productivity—and therefore the sustainability—of our operation.

working as a team to clean the kitchen

working as a team to clean the kitchen

3) Cooperative Community Structure

The founding of intentional communities in America has a long tradition dating back to founding of Jamestown and the landing at Plymouth in the early 1600s. It’s an enterprise which comes into vogue very few generations, and Windward is one of a group of communities which formed in the last blush of community formation in the late 60’s to early 70s. Change was in the air, and people were willing to become the instruments of the change they devoutely wanted to see.

Sadly, very few of those communities lasted very long, and today there are only a handful of us still going. The reasons that communities fail are legion, and at the least each failure points out some way that a community can set itself up to fail. Everyone starts out with the best of intentions, but things happen and situations change, and that’s when your organization’s structure holds, or the community fails.

It’s ironic, but perhaps the most important part of this entire website is the least visited—our bylaws. These are the rules that form the backbone of our community, and which have enabled us to suvive as a community for so long.

It would be nice if a community could form and be assured that there would never be dissention within the community, that the vision which inspired the community would continue on indefinitely. However, that’s just not how communities work.

And even if the people where of one mind, as conditions change, the community has to change with the times, and there has to be a well-thought out way for that process to play out as well. Windward is currently working on Version 4.0 and hoping that all the bugs have finally been worked out. 😉

It’s one thing for a community of believers to come together through the sharing of a religous faith, but secular (non-religious) communities have to find another way to enable strong-willed people to work together for the common good. The road we chose was that of representative consensus, a process which is given form and detail in our Bylaws. In a complicated endeavor such as the creation of a sustainable intentional community, where good intentions are often just not good enough, a working blueprint for building a viable secular community is a precious resource, and perhaps our most meaningful legacy.