WindWard Looks Seaward: Incremental Developments in Energy and Community

Early in February, I met with Opalyn Brenger and Walt Patrick of WindWard, founders and caretakers of a sustainability research community in the middle of beautiful Washington State. They brought me to witness the final triumphant hours of an intensive weekend-long gasification workshop taking place at All Power Labs in Berkeley, California, where attendees and mentors were subverting modern diesel engines to the gasification techniques of the 1890s. And we had a great conversation about the importance of putting enthusiastic but relatively inexperienced individuals right in the thick of the lifestyle they’re dreaming of creating.

The video above, filmed on the last day of All Power Labs’ gasification workshop (Feb 19-21), covers the triumph of converting a diesel-based Lister engine to run on gasified wood fuel. (You can read more details about their setup if you click on the YouTube link.) Formerly a widespread and common technology, the wholesale replacement of energy generation with fossil fuel burners caused gasification technology to fall under a shadow. But the advantages of gasification — from the wide diversity of fuel sources to its far decreased pollution impact to the simple fact that we can’t keep burning fossil fuels — can no longer be ignored.

The implications of the reborn gasification technology are — especially for seasteading — more far-reaching than simply “getting off the grid”. Gasification technology has come a long way, and engines can accommodate waste materials as diverse as coffee grounds and plastic junk. Waste disposal, already a problem potential seasteaders should be thinking about, can now be viewed in a whole new light.

Windward is betting on gasification both as energy generation and as a valuable source of saleable byproducts. One byproduct, for example, is one of the most valuable substances in the modern world: ammonium nitrate, the essential basis of soil refertilization. On the ocean in the hypothetical community of sea-based states, where will platform agriculture acquire nitrogen necessary for plant growth? The ammonium nitrate generation process is expensive and potentially explosive. But if it could be collected as a consequence of the proliferation of waste gasifier engines, seasteads would have the opportunity to sustain their own agriculture indefinitely as well as supply an important export to other seasteads.

Situated near the Columbia River, WindWard has already begun plans to establish a seasteading research village to allow individuals and small groups to directly experience a situation close to the reality of life aboard a seastead. Groups would spend several weeks at a time on a small collection of platforms on the river, interacting only with other seasteaders, dealing with delegation of day-to-day responsibilities, and developing (or carrying out the charter of) an appropriate form of governance.

To understand WindWard’s intent, The Mars Society provides a close analogy. This association of enthusiastic would-be space pioneers believes that if humanity is going to live up to the belief that people can form a lasting habitation on Mars, then people ought to spend some time on the horrid, inhospitable places we have here on our own planet first. Putting words into action, the group routinely organizes temporary settlements on their Arctic Research Station on Devon Island. Says MARS Project leader Dr. Pascal Lee, “By setting ourselves up in this polar desert, we will experience an environment that most closely resembles the surface of Mars.”

WindWard has reached out to The Seasteading Institute to establish a relationship with seasteading enthusiasts — especially TSI members — who would be willing to attempt this trial form of seastead life. WindWard’s project is still in progress, but TSI members can expect to hear directly about this opportunity as it reaches readiness.

The Seasteading Institute greatly respects and values the work of innovative community groups such as WindWard, who are brave enough to undertake to sever themselves from the traditional workings of modern civilization, and ingenious enough to create lives of warmth and comfort by planning carefully, checking their assumptions, forming strong relationships, and putting in plenty of elbow grease.

Check out some pictures from the workshop, where you can see a few more details and glimpse at other people’s projects, including a couple examples of the GEK (Gasification Experiment Kit) created by All Power Labs.


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