As published in Communities Magazine, Winter 2014.

Claire using a cyclocarder to process wool.

In the world of intentional communities, Windward has taken some paths that are different from the norm, and our relationship to technology serves as a good example. From the beginning, we've embraced technology as a way to fund the community through the creation of value.[1] But we've also been mindful of the principle "Technology in service of community, not community in service of technology" as a guide to how to use technology without letting technology use us.

When Windward was founded more than three decades ago, gasoline was 53 cents a gallon; today a gallon of gas costs about four dollars. We've come to see this trend in energy costs as an existential threat for communities like Windward that are located in deep country. We believe that developing technology capable of providing for our core physical needs is an essential part of ensuring Windward's capacity to survive and thrive in the future. As a result, the transformation of low value materials into value-added products has become the central theme woven into the role that technology plays in the fabric of our community.

Windward's Relationship to Technology

We've come to see sustainable community as something that happens at the intersection of a set of carefully balanced systems. In order to keep that delicate equilibrium in play, we've learned how to weave a suite of technologies into our community's financial and life-support systems. Over the years, we've integrated key forms of social technology into Windward's culture, concepts such as representative consensus[2],freedom of conscience[3] and polyamory[4]. In a similar way, we embrace biological technology in our work growing gardens, raising animals, and stewarding the forest.

The Biomass-2-Methanol process ("B2M" for short) lies at the heart of the community-scale energy technology we're developing. We believe that the on-site conversion of biomass into energy is a rural community's most credible route to achieving a high degree of energy sovereignty.

We've come to see energy sovereignty as a first level community priority for multiple reasons:

Ruben checks on the deep cycle batteries

To elaborate on that last point, we see energy independence as a matter of both ethics and economics. Windward grew out of the anti-war protests of the 1970s and still embodies a deep desire to avoid being complicit in the resource wars that plague humanity today. For far too long, humanity has been digging coal from the bottom of its grave. We want to be part of creating a future in which energy comes from collecting the rays of the sun,[5] not from mining down into the heart of the Earth.

We live in a rural county that produces large amounts of renewable energy,[6] and our local power cooperative currently sells us the energy we need to power our washing machine for about a dime a load. Motivated by our long term quest for energy independence, we take them up on the offer so that for now we can focus on developing the technology that will expand and strengthen our economic foundation.

Windward's Technological Lineage

Windward is no stranger to technology. In the 1980's we operated a foundry in southern Nevada where we transformed metal parts from junked cars into new products. In a sense, we were avid recyclers long before it became fashionable. We have a long-standing tradition of repurposing discarded resources, and it's a calling that we take great pride in. While our work here in south-central Washington State now-a-days revolves around technologies such as permaculture and sylviculture,[7] we've learned how to operate our own sawmill, make bricks from our soil, use six different types of welders to maintain our heavy equipment, mix concrete for our buildings, and lots of other useful things. Essentially, we've learned how to use the technologies that best serve our vision and goals. In the process, we found that most every project we get involved with brings with it an opportunity to expand our technological skill set, and each accomplishment builds our willingness to take on ever greater challenges.

Andrew with his home-made seed ball device.

For Windward, the concept of integrating appropriate technology into community life goes way back. Our community drew its initial vision from Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. In turn, Heinlein drew from Upton Sinclair's EPIC Project and John Humphrey Noyes' Oneida Community. Both Sinclair and Noyes were able to fuse cooperative association and technological enterprises in ways that have informed our effort to build on what worked for them. We proudly follow the path they blazed, paying close attention to what they did because it can be fairly argued that their successes created their greatest problems.

We're especially sensitive to the adverse impact that too great a focus on technology can have on a community. Pioneers such as Nancy and Jack Todd of The New Alchemy Institute developed technologies that materially advanced the sustainable community tool set. Others such as Anna Edey of Solviva demonstrated how sustainable food systems can open up profitable new markets in challenging climates. Yet, perhaps the most important lesson their experiences drive home for us is how putting technology ahead of community can lead to organizational collapse when political and economic conditions change.

Biomass to Methanol: Growing a Sustainable Future

The role that energy plays in community was summed up quite well up by E. F. Schumacher: "It is impossible to overemphasize its centrality. It might be said that energy is for the mechanical world what consciousness is for the human world: If energy fails, everything fails."

Walt with the biomass compressor, part of the B2M process

The historical record shows that the crash of even one core system will threaten a community's survival, something which is especially true for its energy system. The landscape of the American West is littered with ghost towns that once prospered but then crashed when they exhausted some key non-renewable resource. As the age of cheap fossil fuels draws to a close, we believe that developing energy independence is a challenge that communities of all sorts must face. [8]

To ensure that Windward has the ability to meet its future energy needs, we are working through the challenges of converting the dilute energy stored in woody biomass into the concentrated fuels that a rural community like Windward uses and currently needs to buy. Throughout this research and development phase, we are committed to using open source concepts to show others how to do the same. Each Earth Day, it's become a Windward community tradition to haul some biomass gasification equipment into Portland, OR, to show that there really is a homegrown alternative to relying on fossil fuels for energy, and to describe why our research is important to those who live in the city too.

The first step of the B2M process takes advantage of the natural alchemy of photosynthesis: we use self-replicating solar collectors (a.k.a trees) to capture sunshine, rain and carbon dioxide in the form of woody biomass. We then process that biomass into wood chips which are versatile, compact and easy to store.

The next steps are more involved. Gasification of woody biomass produces a fuel called wood gas [9] which can function as a replacement for natural gas and can be used to power our homes and tools. It's fairly straight-forward to use wood gas to generate electricity and hot water that are used in the community. However, the subsequent transformation of wood gas into liquid fuels capable of operating cars, trucks and tractors is more technologically challenging. So, we’re busy researching and building a prototype for the next step: converting wood gas into fuels that are more concentrated, portable, and biologically safe. Each type of liquid fuel has its pros and cons, but our studies indicate that the production of methanol as a replacement for gasoline [10] is the safest way to fuel community vehicles.

Opalyn with a Gassifier Experimenter's Kit, part of B2M.

Describing the physical chemistry involved in the B2M process is beyond the scope of this essay. However, this technology will enable Windward, and other communities like it, to produce its own vehicular fuel for community-use and barter. The technology is also capable of generating other fuels such as dimethyl ether which can replace the propane and diesel that rural communities currently have to buy.

The B2M process is closely tied to forest stewardship. A forest is a living entity, and living closely with nature drives home the point that living things die. Each spring some trees die when they lose their grip on the saturated soil and blow over. Each winter some trees are killed when freezing rain snaps even full grown trees in half. Some trees die because of insect damage or from disease, and some of that material needs to be selectively cleared out in order to protect the forest's health. Responsible stewardship for our dry-land forest, or for forests that have fire as a natural part of the ecological cycle, also generates a substantial amount of woody biomass as low hanging branches are removed to minimize fire danger, and young trees are thinned out to encourage healthy tree density.

Removing the surplus biomass minimizes the fuel load and reduces the likelihood of a catastrophic forest fire. Instead of just piling it up and burning it, as many do, we're choosing to convert this forest fire hazard into wood gas and other more concentrated fuels that can be used to serve the visions and goals of the community.

Scale and Scope of B2M Technology

The sustainable production of methanol is an ambitious project, but fortunately, we're able to build on time-tested technology.[11] Indeed, much of the work we're doing does not involve inventing new technology since gasification of coal was understood and widely used more than a century ago. Back then, most cities used gasification to convert coal into the gas that lit its street lights and cooked its food. Gasification was abandoned when a tsunami of petroleum swamped the world's energy systems, but with the rising cost of oil, gasification is poised to make a comeback. Much of the work that needs to be done now involves figuring out how to use woody biomass instead of coal, and then how to scale down and automate the production of methanol.

Lindsay removing biomass from our Stewardship Forest.

Still, it's a matter of scale. The gasification of woody biomass is limited [12] in ways that prevent it from being expanded into some desperate mega-system in order to replace oil and keep the industrial-consumer complex going a bit longer. We're happy that B2M is a local-scale technology that's inherently limited to keeping an intentional community's lights on, its homes warm and its goods moving to market.

Another benefit is that good stewardship results in a healthy forest that produces lots of biomass. That enables increased methanol production as a reward for good stewardship. Modern logging practices involve cutting down and hauling away whole trees including the vital micronutrients bound up in the wood.[13] That practice effectively strip mines the forest of the minerals trees need to live. On-site gasification retains those minerals on-site in the form of wood ash, a potent fertilizer [14] that is then returned to the forest to support new growth.

People who live in the city are impacted by the state of rural economies too. For example, rural people who abandon their land and move to the city because they can no longer afford the costs of rural life end up competing for jobs, housing and all the other resources that support city life. Urban life is further impacted because life in the city depends on the resources produced by people living out on the front lines of land stewardship. B2M allows rural people to be the start of the fuel supply chain, instead of being stuck at the tail end -- transforming the state of rural economies.

For city people to prosper, rural people need to be able to continue living with the land and sending food, fuel and fiber into the city. Without country grown food, the city starves. Without the fuels country people supply, the city goes dark. Without the watersheds rural people protect, the city's water becomes unfit to drink.

We are aiming to address these concerns by creating a localized village-scale energy system that can be replicated in service of rural communities around the world. Lots of people want to go back to the land, but are stymied by the challenge of figuring out how to meet their core needs. We're working to lower that barrier in anticipation of the day when solitary consumerism necessarily gives way to a new generation of intentional communities.

Chelsea's artistic rendition of a B2M-fuelled village.

B2M is being developed as a well documented, open-source technology that can be copied wherever people have biomass to utilize -- whether it's in the form of rice hulls or beetle-killed trees, logging waste or water hyacinths. Gasification is a process that separates the nutrients derived from the atmosphere[15] from the nutrients derived from the land [16] so that the former can be converted into fuel and the latter can be returned to support the next cycle of growth.

An Invitation to Support the Research

It's fine with us that this technology is not suitable for commercial exploitation.[17] We're not in this for the money -- what we want is a reliable way to be able to meet our energy needs without doing harm. So rather than pursue government grants or bring in venture capitalists, we've embraced open-source funding. This path enables Windward's True Fans to accelerate our open-source research by providing recurring donations of as little as $10/month. We liken this funding approach to drip irrigation in that the money comes in at a steady rate, funds that we can use to purchase the parts needed to build the prototype. If you find the work we're doing to be worthwhile and you would enjoy having a front-row seat as it unfolds, we invite you to become a True Fan.

In closing, we want to emphasize that technology is not a substitute for sound communitarian principles and sustainable ecological practices. Indeed, we see love, affection and commitment as the qualities most essential to building a working model of what we think of as Love Based Living. But we also understand that it's much easier to manifest those qualities in a community that's well-lit and comfortable. We know that the future will not be simple; serious challenges lie ahead. But we also know that a hot bath, clean clothes, and a warm bed will help us face that future with deeper compassion, greater persistence--and more joy.


1. Instead of striving to make money, our experience is that our long-term security is better served by focusing on ways to create value.

2. Representative consensus is a system of governance in which the members choose a committee that then develops a working consensus. For more details, see Windward's By-Laws

3. The spiritual path which each member follows is a personal matter; nature is the only "higher authority" the community recognizes.

4. Many, but not all of our members practice polyamory, the practice of loving more than one person.

5. Using natural collectors such as trees instead of industrial products such as photovoltaic panels.

6. Deeply rural Klickitat County, home to 20,000 people, draws hydroelectric power from the Columbia River, has a string of wind turbines 26 miles long and generates 27 Megawatts of power from its state-of-the-art landfill. Currently one third of the county's tax base is comprised of giant wind turbines.

7. "The cultivation of forest trees for timber or other purposes."

8. White's Law, one of the core concepts of human ecology, tells us that, other factors remaining constant, culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased

9. Wood gas contains carbon monoxide and hydrogen; natural gas contains methane

10. Methanol contains 60% as much energy as gasoline, so more is required to go the same distance.

11. During WWII more than a million vehicles ran on wood gas.

12. The energy density of woody biomass is so low that the energy required to transport it any notable distance exceeds the net energy in the biomass.

13. The mineral content of wood runs around 4% by dry weight.

14. Prior to the development of fossil-fuel based fertilizers, wood ash was the primary fertilizer available.

15. Carbon, Oxygen and Hydrogen

16. Magnesium, Calcium, Potassium, Phosphorus, Sulfur, Nitrogen, Boron, Copper, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum and Zinc.

17. Woody biomass lacks the energy density needed to justify the cost of long distance transport.