A Permaculture Approach to Renewable Energy

Last weekend was the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s 23rd annual Energy Fair in Custer, Wisconsin. Over the course of the weekend I attended 11 workshops, on topics such as Wooden Cities, Suburban and Urban Permaculture, Small Scale Permaculture Farming, From Foreclosure to LEED, Getting to Zero, Lifestyle Entrepreneurship, Sustainable Living Simplified, and A Permaculture Approach to Renewable Energy, which has really stuck with me.

First, presenter Bill Wilson of Midwest Permaculture talked about rocket mass heaters. I’ve read about these before but haven’t seen them in action. The story with these devices is their efficiency and ease of construction. They use only 25% of the fuel of an equivalent wood stove for the same heat output. They usually are built with a cob bench/seating area as thermal mass.

Bill described helping his neighbor build a rocket mass heater for the first time. The stove required some tweaks, such as learning how to get it started with minimal smoke, and realizing that the house was too tight with too little air leakage, they added a fresh-air intake for the heater. And they built the whole unit for less than $100. Simple, cheap, and effective.

As for wood, the rocket mass heater requires so little fuel that trimmings can work fine. Rather than cutting, splitting, and drying firewood, Bill mentioned a technique called coppicing to cultivate and harvest trimmings from deciduous shrubs and trees; a little goes a long way! Here’s an example:

Another fascinating topic was downdraft wood gasification. When burned in a certain way, wood produces abundant hydrogen which can be captured and used to power a gasoline engine. A group in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, produced the following video demonstrating the process. I’ll have to look into this more, but it seems like it could be a viable way to power a home generator for electricity production.

As for permaculture, a complete description of the 12 design principles is a little long, but Bill emphasized that permaculture is simply care for people, the planet, and the future, with these benefits:

  • waste becomes a resource
  • productivity and yields increase
  • work is minimized
  • the environment is restored

As always, I learned a lot, from people who are actively doing what they teach. I’ll add more in another post.


The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities