For the mechanically-minded, building a rudimentary windmill for power generation is far from impossible. Indeed, many preppers make use of them across the world already. For example, the radial vanes of a large fan can be cut and curved from thin steel sheets, then mounted on the hub of a wheel, so that the twisting energy of the fan is transferred by a chain and bicycle gear set.
The principle step is to convert the energy from the fan’s rotations into electricity. You don’t even need to buy a proper generator, as this can easily be done with a ready-made one. If you have a motorhome or any type of motor vehicle, then you already have a generator to do the job — a car alternator.
Car alternators are ingenious devices. Spin the shaft, and a steady 12 volts of direct current will appear across its terminals. It does not even matter how quickly you spin it, the output is the same. Simpler alternatives can be found in the permanent magnet motors from power tools, and even equipment like running treadmills.
The beauty of solar panels is that they have no moving parts, and so survive remarkably well for long periods of time with little to no maintenance. Take care of one properly, and you will likely get a decade of use of it. And even then, faults and repairs are usually easy to remedy.
The best models are the briefcase and pivot-mounted varieties. You can angle them as the sun moves across the sky, for maximum effect. And you can store them away to prevent theft or damage in severe weather conditions.
Solar panels do deteriorate over time though, and the electricity they generate is thought to decline by about 1 per cent every year. So, while they probably won’t become useless over a lifetime, you will start to notice reduced capacity.
Car batteries are very reliable, but they are made to deliver a high-current and brief burst of power to get the motor started. They are also easily damaged if they discharge frequently by more than 5 per cent.
A better alternative is the deep cycle battery. If you own a motorhome, a caravan or even a golf cart, you have a deep cycle (also known as ‘rechargeable lead-acid batteries’). Unlike regular car batteries, they discharge at a much slower rate and can have their entire capacity drained and recharged over and over without being damaged.
This setup will provide a direct current output, fit for powering small fridges, lamps, and so on. But with the addition of an inverter (a device which converts direct current into alternating current electricity) you will be able to power almost all other appliances.
The vertical waterwheel is as old as the Romans, although it was initially used for the mechanisation of grinding stone into mill flour and not power generation.
The wheel was improved upon in Medieval Europe, but fell out of use in the eighteenth-century. However, for your off-grid purposes, they are a somewhat good way to exploit flowing water for energy generation.
Waterwheels are simple to make for the mechanically minded, and rudimentary. How effective they are depends on the strength of the water flow and how hard the water falls onto the delivery chute of the waterwheel.
If you have a less reliable source of flowing water, you can build a water turbine for even better efficiency. A Pelton turbine can be crafted using rudimentary sheets of metal shaped into ‘spoons’ or ‘cups’. They are designed in such a way that the water crashes with greater punch; forcing them downwards in the opposite direction, turning the wheel quicker.
And if your local water source has a rapid discharge, but doesn’t plummet all that much, you can always turn to the more complicated to build — but more efficient — cross-flow turbine model. These models look more like the Roman waterwheels, but have lots of small, curved blades that exploit the water for energy as it rushes into them. When it comes to delivering energy to the developing world, cross-flow turbines are often the first technologies that come to mind. They are more than ideal for anyone looking for independent power generation, are perfectly manufacturable with a bit of time and skill.
Wood and carbon energy
If you own a significant plot of land, then you will not lack firewood if you maintain coppices of fast-growing trees. Ash and willow trees quickly sprout again once felled, and are ready for harvesting again in as quick as five years — delivering on average around five to ten tonnes of wood energy every year on a well-managed hectare.
You can get even more energy by intensely burning the wood; deliberately limiting its oxygen availability so that it can no longer combust. This is the ancient practice of charcoal production. As all the water and other light molecules are driven out of the wood, the complex compounds that make up the wood itself are themselves broken down by heat. The wood is then ‘pyrolysed’ to make pure carbon.
Carbon is not only lighter and easier to carry than wood, it burns far hotter for more energy release. Assuming you have the land permissions, you can make a carbon burner in nature by diffing a large trench and filling it with wood, starting a fire, and then covering the trench with sheets of corrugated iron — with a topping of soil to further starve the oxygen. Then it’s a simple matter of leaving the trench to smoulder and cool. All that will then be left behind is indispensable carbon to burn for energy.
All of these steps and more will provide you with energy straight from nature. They represent a simpler way of life, a return to the Earth.
Neil Wright is a researcher and copywriter. He is passionate about the great outdoors and the natural world, and has written a lot about sourcing energy independently of the grid on his website.