Unlike water and food, energy is not an essential need. Theoretically, we can eat raw food, manually draw water from ponds and wells, not travel at all except by foot or animal carts and do without appliances, let alone the Internet. How feasible is that life? A time will come when we have to make choices that will involve compromises. To me it seemed in 2006, a way to begin would be to use available energy resources as borrowed capital with which to build a truly autonomous energy independent life; once that was achieved the borrowed energy capital could be returned.
Let me begin with the assumptions I made. Plentiful availability of petroleum and grid power would cease to be affordable by 2020. Beyond 2020, diminishing petro-fuel would be available for only public transportation and civic essentials. Communities would perforce be driven to develop local or individual solutions for lighting, power and short distance transportation. How could we plan for that future at pointReturn?
The first exercise was therefore to match energy needs with appropriate solutions. Thus water lifting was to be with a wind pump, cooking served by firewood and electricity derived from solar panels. That still left the need for petroleum in the form of diesel for my commutes and for the machinery to dig the water bodies. A record was kept of the diesel used; it stands at 5,000 litres. It was to be treated as borrowed capital to create a water harvesting system and for soil husbandry. I rationalised that society will continue to have optimised long haul bus, train and cargo transport services available to all even beyond 2020, at a minimal per head of money and energy costs. So the energies incurred under those heads for the project were not added to the petro debt.
My travels for GoodNewsIndia had convinced me that tree based non-edible vegetable oils, such as from Pongamia pinnata had the potential to create profitable local energy economies. The tree had bewitched me since 2001 and over the next 4 years I attempted to encourage its adoption at several places with indifferent success. Deeply convinced of the tree’s viability however, a central role for them was at the heart of my plans when envisioning pointReturn. A 1,000 trees were to be planted which would serve the energy needs of pointReturn and people within a 3kM radius while creating a sustained cash income.
It is difficult to communicate how such an economy will be a success. The reasons are many. For one, our profitability calculations are incapable of foreseeing the sky-high prices post-2020 pongamia oil will fetch [-biodiesel tends to be just a few rupees below petro-diesel]. For another, sceptics are not persuaded that when the crunch comes, issues like productivity of the trees, their harvest, small scale processing of the oil, restrictive laws and adaptation of engines for their use would all be rapidly addressed. Finally, few people have enthusiasm for a forgotten tree whose virtues and gifts will become apparent 8 years after planting.
To answer a contrarian question -what happens if the 2020 crunch does not happen and we are enabled by abundant energy, to live wastefully, happily ever after?- “well, vegetable oils will always be in need for soaps and chemicals, the cake may fed directly to a bio-digester to generate gas and the slurry used to fertilise fields and trees; the enormous leaf fall is a rich source of biomass.” The point is growing pongamia in a large monocultural stand will likely fail but integrated into diverse farming activities, a modest stand of trees can generate income and meet local needs of liquid energy.
At pointReturn, planting of pongamia trees began in 2007 and today, there are 400 trees. About 1,000 litres of oil and 3,000 kg of oil cake per year may be conservatively expected, starting in the 8th year and go on for 50 years therefrom. Today the oil sells at Rs.40/litre and the oil cake at Rs.15/kg. So repayment of the 5,000 litre debt while generating a cash income is realistic.
How this plan is realised in the future remains to be seen.
Beginning 2010, food growing has received steady attention at pointReturn. The original intent was to explore whether a land, restored to fertility from total destitution in say 10 years, can produce food for 40 people. About 3 acres were identified for field crops. In so-called ‘organic farming’ energy and water costs are not factored in. It was believed that free electricity for agriculture promoted irresponsible drawal of water and led to wrong crop selection and unsustainable farming. Therefore it was decided to focus on vegetables, millets, pulses and oil seeds, practice responsible use of water and depend on very little external inputs.
Residents have been diligent in seeking out heirloom seeds, experimenting with various species, methods of horticulture and gathering impressive knowledge of cultural practices, matching species to seasons and growing handsome quantity of vegetables and fruits. Foxtail millet and groundnuts [for oil] have been grown sufficiently to meet annual needs.
The soil fertility is increasing steadily if very slowly. Lack of cattle at pointReturn is a significant drag on further progress.
When in a few years biomass availability increases and the RWH system results in higher water table, soil health will steadily improve. A well was dug in 2012 and it is is not conclusively known yet, if it will mature into a reliable source of water needed for agriculture, however sensitively practiced.
A grid power connection was applied for in 2013 but not for a tariff-free service: pointReturn will pay for every unit of power consumed. In the rising cost of power is a mechanism to encourage frugality and eventual adoption of an alternative source.
Life in an integrated rural habitat nudges one to reassess money and its role in our lives. All notions of how much money is required, what are the essentials it needs to buy and how to make it are held as obvious by urban dwellers. An average urban dweller, at a minimum, pays rent, buys water and food, maintains a work-wardrobe, commutes to work and invariably seeks a doctor for his family’s frequent concerns. Rural life can be lived without money for most of all the above. The quality of air and water, constant delights that accompany the evolution of a land into a rich habitat, silences unique to nature are bonuses difficult to quantify in money terms.
However, ‘modern’ life has its charms and attractions and so the need for cash cannot be wished away. When pointReturn was conceived, it was believed that money- like petro-fuel, described earlier- should be used as capital to develop the land into a productive space. After a time say 10 years, there would be a tidy income for 10 residents, the major contributor being bio-fuel sales. Planned harvest of timber trees, a natural apiary and naturally preserved foods are other sources of considerable income.
Generating unforced surpluses from a land, barren until recently, requires the convergence of water adequacy, increased biomass and soil fertility and above all a critical number of residents [-which should definitely be above the current three] and their continued enthusiasm for realising the potential.
It will be another 6 years before any conclusion may be reached about steady flow of money.