How I prepared my family for peak oil – Nicole Foss (video and text)

October 11, 2011

Local Future published a full-length, uncut, video presentation by Nicole M. Foss on her personal efforts to prepare her family for economic uncertainty and peak oil. [at YouTube]

Foss is senior editor of The Automatic Earth (TAE), where she writes as Stoneligh. TAE integrates a study of the global economy with a peak oil perspective. Previously, Foss served as the editor of The Oil Drum – Canada. Foss ran the Agri-Energy Producers’ Association of Ontario, where she focused on farm-based biogas projects and grid connections for renewable energy. While living in the UK, Foss was a Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, where she specialized in nuclear safety in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, and conducted research into electricity policy at the EU level.

Her academic qualifications include a BSc in biology from Carleton University in Canada (where she focused primarily on neuroscience and psychology), a post-graduate diploma in air and water pollution control, an LLM in international law in development from the University of Warwick in the UK. She was granted the University Medal for the top science graduate in 1988 and the law school prize for the top law school graduate in 1997.

In 2009, Foss created a presentation titled A Century of Challenges, which lays out in 80 minutes the overall picture for peak oil and decline, and how the economy is likely to respond. Since then, she has toured extensively throughout North America and Europe, delivering talks to audiences ranging from small transition towns groups to large international conferences.

Her conference speaking events have included the Transition Towns conference in the UK, the FEASTA (Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability) conference in Ireland, the ASPO-USA (Association for the Study of Peak Oil) conference in Washington, DC. and the Local Future leadership conference in Michigan.

Foss has been interviewed by various radio and TV stations, as well publications including Financial Sense, Max Keiser, CollapseNet and Transition Voice. She was thanked by Richard Heinberg’s for her insights into the world of finance, which Heinberg incorporated into his book The End of Growth.

In November, Foss speaks at the ASPO-USA conference and the Local Future conference. At ASPO, she speaks for about 30-minutes as part of a three person panel including Dmitry Orlov and Gail (the Actuary) Tverberg. For the Local Future conference, Foss delivers her full, updated A Century of Challenges presentation as part of a full day of activities to study the future of the economy, along with Dr. Steve Keen of Australia, author of Debunking Economics.

In the video presentation released by Local Future, Foss details the preparations she and her family undertook in order to get ready for tough times ahead.

Foss had been living in England with her family in the 1990s, but after studying the economic indicators, decided to sell everything and relocate to a rural farm in Ontario, approximately eleven years ago. At the time, there was a large property bubble in England, which allowed her to sell a single townhouse, and turn around and purchase a 40-acre farm, with cash to spare.

Foss and her husband set a goal to reduce the energy use of the farmhouse by ninety percent. First, they discontinued using the vertical open loop geothermal system. They installed a outdoor wood burning furnace, which greatly reduced the electricity demand. They cut the wood themselves. For the summer, they installed solar hot water panels for domestic hot water.

For electricity, they installed a renewable energy system, with three kilo-watts of solar panels, and six deep cycle marine batteries. The various essentials of the home are hooked up to this system, including the well pump, sump pump, refrigerator, freezer, an invisible fence, a few lights, a few fans, etc. For a secondary set of electric loads, they have a gasoline generator, and a generator that can be installed on their diesel tractor. The battery bank can be charged from the solar panels, the generator, or the utility lines.

Several decisions had to be made when installing the renewable energy (RE) system. Foss decided not to connect the solar panels in a grid-tie situation to take advantage of Ontario’s feed-in tariff program. She believes that long term feed-in tariff contracts will not be honored in the longer term. Foss states that for her, these are not energy generating systems, but rather money generating systems. Rather than installing a tracking panel arrangement, which Foss considers a weak point in an RE system due to the moving parts. Instead, she installed more panels, which can be adjusted for their angle in winter and summer. For a similar reason, due to the moving parts maintenance requirements, they decided against a wind generator.

One consideration for Foss was that the solar panels generate much less energy in the winter months, which she sees as a vulnerability. This is one of the reasons that they did not disconnect from the electric utility, but rather switched as much of the electric load as possible to the renewable energy system. Items which are neither on the RE system or the generator circuit include an electric range, and assorted appliances.

Foss looks at home preparedness as being a matter of building in redundancy, which allows for function regardless of the available energy inputs.

For cooking, Foss has built redundancy. In addition to the electric range, she has a toaster oven, but notes that devices that generates heat from electricity are typically inefficient. Instead, she states that she could cook using a microwave oven, a wood fired range, a barbecue range with propane, a Coleman stove with butane, a solar oven or use a tripod and dutch oven over a fire pit.

Clean water is an essential for living. She suggests a very effective passive water filter such as used by aid agencies in the third world. Foss owns a Big Berkey filter for this purpose. She normally uses white ceramic filter to improve her well water quality. These systems need filters, but the filters last for a long time. Her farm has the original 30 foot deep dug well, with a pump handle. If she used this water she would use activated charcoal filter.

Transport options are useful. Foss lives three kilometers from the nearest village. The family has bicycles, and it is possible to walk that distance. She notes that, if necessary, she could walk twenty kilometers to Ottawa. She sees this as an area of vulnerability, and suggests that living in the city benefits from centralized services and ease of walking places. Rural areas would need to be much more self-sufficient. Her farm has seven barns, which could be converted into additional living space, with the possibility of a future intentional community. She shares the least hope for new suburbia.

Foss is a hobby farmer. She does hay and has sheep, alpaca, chickens and a dog sled team. She is a musher as a hobby, which she sees as a transport option for winter. She uses most of the sheep and alpaca for fiber. Her family eats the male sheep and eggs from the chickens. Foss grows various vegetables including corn, beans and squash in a three-sisters pattern; as well as tomatoes and peppers. She also has nut trees and fruit trees. They use a heated greenhouse to extend the growing season. She sees food storage through the non-producing months to be a key aspect of effective preparedness. Foss believes that living on a vegan diet becomes more difficult in areas with shorter growing seasons, and thus families will need to address such dietary considerations.

Foss and her husband have three teenage children. She notes that her children, as a captive audience, “have heard it all, they really have”. The children have been encouraged to study practical skills, to stay out of debt, and to only go to an affordable college if they earn a scholarship. Foss warns against any teenager going into debt for college, since students do not have jobs nor the ability to sell assets to pay off debts. This creates a vulnerability to organizations that may offer to pay off debts in exchange for service.

Foss’s eldest is studying massage therapy, and plans to move on to nursing. Foss would have encouraged against going to medical school since it is too expensive. She also notes that advanced skills learned will be unaffordable to most people in the future, thus finding a “happy medium” is important when working towards advanced study.

Foss’s middle child is an aspiring opera singer, which is a vocal skill which takes many years to develop. Foss sees this as opening a range of entertainment possibilities, and notes that “really entertaining people very rarely starve to death”. Foss points out that practical skills that are typically taught in college can also be apprenticed, and this is a very feasible possibility for completing various training in the future.

Setting expectations for children early is important. This was one reason that Foss and her husband chose a farm setting, where practical skills could be seen and used on an everyday basis. Her children did not have television or computer games, and fun was focused around low-energy items such as board games, card games, and walking the dogs. Foss’s youngest, who is now in grade 10, has stated that she is interested in carpentry.

“People can be happy with drastically less”, Foss notes, citing a BBC program called All Our Children to show how children in even the poorest situations could still be happy.

“It’s amazing what you can be happy with,” Foss says. “It’s about expectations. It’s not what we have; it’s what we have relative to what we expected to have or hoped to have. If we can make our expectations realistic, then we can meet those expectations.”

Foss concludes with, “There is a hell of a lot we can do. We can’t have business as usual. We have to get over it. It is gone. It is done. We cant’ have that. We have to be happy with what we can have; that is really what it means to be human, and that is incredibly important.”


Foss delivers her full, updated A Century of Challenges keynote presentation along with a full day of panels and discussions at the International Conference on Sustainability, Transition and Culture Change: Vision, Action, Leadership in November. Speakers also include Dr. Steve Keen, Albert Bates, Dr. Guy McPherson, Jan Lundberg, Kurt Cobb, TS Bennett, Sally Erickson, Michael Brownlee, Aaron Wissner and Gregory Greene.

The conference is directed by Aaron Wissner, founder of Local Future, a 501(c)3 tax-exempt educational organization.

Tags: Building Community, Education, Fossil Fuels, Media & Communications, Oil