Saturday, 21 December 2013

Christmas spirit

Yesterday was a bizarre day! I was happily dashing around cleaning and baking and shopping for last minute things, ready to have a lovely kids Christmas Party. It all felt very festive and it was indeed a lovely party, where they all made festive crafts, played silly games and had lots of sweets and treats J
Yet it was the little incidents that happened in between that have stuck in my head. The first of those was that my bike was stolen from our back garden. Someone had got through the bolted back gate, in the middle of the day and nabbed it. As hubby says, it should have been locked up or put back in the garage, but it wasn’t, so it’s gone.
It was just one person, because the second bike had just been moved aside and left. My concern was that this was a 'Grinch', scouting garages for easy targets to raid, who would then be coming back at night to steal any Christmas presents stashed there. I let the local police know and then after the party, I transferred all our Christmas presents to alternative hiding places indoors. This is really tough in our house because every storage space is full, except for the loft, but as the access is via the kids bedroom it is not an option for pressies.
I had set a very tight budget this year for presents and had stuck to it. There really didn’t seem much point trying to reduce the ‘stuff’ we get all year, then blowing it all at Christmas. But as I brought in the presents and wrapped them I started to feel like a real Scrooge. This minimalist approach was surely going to end in disappointment on Christmas day?
Contrast this to my feelings earlier in the day. There was me, arms full of carrier bags (I knew I should have taken my shopping trolley, for those awkwardly shaped items!) busily dashing to the next shop, when I saw a young man sitting on the ground with a bit of cardboard begging. He wasn’t vocally begging or bothering anyone, in fact most people just dashed past not even seeing him, as if he was just a Christmas spectre. But I saw him and he saw me. He had this guise of a bowed head and not looking directly at you, but I got the impression he was taking in everything and seeing right through me. It was quite surreal, so I stopped, fumbled in my purse and gave him a few quid. I think I spoke to him - something stupid like “Its cold out today”, but he didn’t respond, and then I was gone, off doing my shopping.
He wasn’t gone from my thoughts though. On the scrap of cardboard in front of him he had drawn half a dozen circles. Two of them were covered in coins and on the rest he had written the amounts of the missing coins,  10 pence, 50 pence etc. I suppose they were the coins he was begging for. You can’t even get a cup of tea for 50p, let alone a hot meal or a warm bed. I really wanted to ask “You have got a place to stay right? You’re not sleeping rough for Christmas?” but what would I have done if he answered?
Christmas is a dilemma. In one day I have oscillated from the joy of making children happy, to feeling like a skinflint with a budget, to worry about our ‘frivolous’ presents being stolen, to thoughts about a lonely looking lad sat begging in the cold. Is there any balance or perspective or are we all caught up on this rollercoaster of commercialism, torn between what is right and what is expected? Tell me that I'm not the only one?
I’m not a religious person, but I can see that it is good to sometimes give thanks for our daily bread, the roof over our heads, the friends and family around us and for the time for reflection. 

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Energy saving 1

Busy, busy, busy....the last few months have flown by. Maybe it is because the days are shorter that they seem to rush by quicker, or because there is so much that I want to do. Sigh!

Back in October I wrote that I planned to reduce our energy consumption by 65%. The idea was that this would hopefully offset the increase in prices to 2020 at the current rate. (It is possible that prices will increase more than my projection to 2020, but despite all the political hot air going on right now, it seems unlikely that overall price increases will be lower.) Then a few weeks back I re-assessed how much further I would need to go to reduce our consumption to 90% of the average American consumption. After a 65% reduction we would still be double the target consumption. How are we going to achieve this?

So this is the start of a mini-series, a step-by-step look at energy reduction measures, that may continue on a sporadic basis for some time. I'm not going to just list a standard '10 tips', without telling you how to go about doing them. No, they are all going to be based around improving my very real home, and include discussion of the options available and how to do it. Feel free to ask questions or let me know any energy efficiency measures you have taken.

Insulation is always first on the list. It not only saves energy on heating, but it makes your home noticeably warmer and cosier. It can also be fairly cheap and cost-effective to install, and you can reap the benefits for the next 20 - 40 years.

The simplest measure is to install a thick layer of insulation in your loft. My hubby installed a 150mm layer of rockwool insulation between the joists of the main roof, the year we moved in. Then I layed a second layer across the rafters in 2007. It isn't a very nice job, crawling across joists dressed in gloves, boiler suit, goggles and mask, but if I can do it then it really isn't soo hard, especially now that there are so many more options for insulation rather than Rockwool which is a skin irritant. My local DIY store stocks lambs wool and insulation made from recycled plastic bottles, alongside rockwool that is sealed in a 'bag' that can just be rolled out.

It's not a perfect job though. For a start the loft hatch isn't insulated. We also have a walkway along the middle, made from chipboard laying on the rafters, so there is only one layer of insulation under the boards there. Perhaps all the junk stacked on the chipboard counts as additional insulation?

Energy saving no.1 : Insulating the loft hatch
I bought one sheet of condensed insulation board, that was big enouth to cover the loft hatch twice, for £8 from the DIY store. I cut it neatly to size with the bread knife, including cutting a notch around the opening mechanism. I would have liked to stick 2 layers of insulation on the loft hatch, but there is a ladder attached, which only allowed room for one layer. Tah dah! Estimated annual savings for insulating the loft hatch is £9 a year. (I think that figure was from the Energy Savings Trust a few years back, so it should get an even bigger saving on current energy prices)


Energy saving no.2 : Top-up loft insulation on the walkway
The next job should be to lay insulation boards on top of the walkway. There are some handy solutions in the DIY store now, that weren't available a few years ago, to make this job a lot easier. The first are insulated loft boards - chipboard with insulation attached, so you can lay the boards across the rafters and they are ready to walk on.

The next is plastic legs, that attach to the rafters. They allow you to lay an new walkway on top of them to walk on, whilst giving space for insulation below them.

Luckily the walkway in our loft is just a small area, so we could insulate it for £100 using the legs with rockwool below and re-laying most of the existing boards on top. The downside is that we will lose even more head height which is not ideal as this provides access to the boiler. I am picturing our plumber having to crawl along on his hands and knees with his toolbox, which is far from ideal. Dilemma - ease of access over energy efficiency?

For this year I have come up with a compromise. We have several rolls of off cuts of carpet and underlay stored in our garage. I'm going to roll out a couple of layers of carpet over the loft walkway. This should provide some additional insulation, though probably not as good as the proper insulation. It also has the bonus of freeing up some space in the garage and not costing a penny :-)

I will post the photos of the completed jobs next time, along with more energy savings. If you are living in the UK and receive certain benefits, you may be applicable to have you loft insulation topped-up for free by applying for ECO funding. This applies even if you live in rented accomodation or are not the homeowner. Try calling the Energy Saving Advice Service on 0300 123 1234 to see if you qualify for free loft insulation and other energy efficiency measures.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Population growth

I get into debates about population growth quite regularly, whether it is regarding the justification to build homes for 10,000 people on my doorstep, or a wider global population debate. I have always felt that population is stabilising, due to limitations on resources.

Well last week BBC2 aired an amazing presentation by Professor Hans Rosling using UN data to demonstrate what we don't know but should know about the population. If you haven't seen it then please take the time to watch it, because it is totally amazing the figures that he presents, in a very down-to-earth manner.

(Sorry - Youtube  video removed, but you can still watch it here )

What I like the most is how the World has been changed by individual peoples choices. If we can do this to stabilise population growth then we can do it to eliminate poverty and prevent climate change. Makes the future seem brighter :)

Friday, 8 November 2013


It is November and I still picked a small handful of raspberries from the garden this morning, though it really does look like the last! I have also harvested Honey Bear squash for the first time, thanks to some free seeds from my mum. They are too hard to peel so I just roasted them whole Jamie Oliver style. Yum!

I have also been picking all the green tomatoes and ripening them in a bowl on the windowsill with a few ripe tomatoes amongst them. Many people suggest laying newspaper on them, but we no longer get a free advertising paper, so this would mean buying one especially. The tomatoes seem to have ripened well without it though. These ones were totally green when I picked them.

I trimmed my bay tree last week, and as always had a huge pile of beautifully fragrant green bay leaves. It always seems such a waste. Last year I dried as many as I could and gave them to friends and Transitioners, but still there were loads left.

I had a lot of success giving away green beans to my neighbours and unexpectedly received an abundance of gifts in return, so I took to my street with the bay leaves. It was actually quite intrepidating knocking on my neighbours doors. Most of them I only ever speak to if I see them walking by or in their front garden, I had never knocked on their doors before! Some I had never even spoken to, just waved a greeting. At this point I should point out that I have lived here for 13 years, but we are mainly very reserved people down this cul-de-sac. An Englishman's home is his castle...and all that. Ok, that is not a worthy excuse for not getting to know my neighbours.

It is strange because before living here, we lived in a 1950's ex-council house for 5 years, and in that time I knew all of my near neighbours and even their parents or children, that didn't even live on the street. I was regularly round neighbours houses for a cup of tea, or their kids would be round playing in my garden. In fact I had been inside at least 5 of my neighbours homes for a long chat and a cuppa in my old neighbourhood, whereas I have only been inside 2 neighbours homes here, and only once long enough for tea!

It's not that my neighbours aren't friendly, it's just that I don't 'see' them much. I did invite some into my ago, but generally being the large and scruffy family that we are, I'm a little embarrased. Hmmm.... maybe everyone else is the same, thinking that they have to live up to a higher standard of immaculate homes in this neighbourhood. Or maybe it is because there are less families and more couples with grown-up children?

I started with the neighbours I knew the most, and knocked on the door, looking rather an idiot with a big box of clippings in my hands. Luckily several of my neighbours did use bay leaves, and yes could they take some for others in the family too? Hurray! So I had some lovely conversations and continued further along the street. The further I went the fewer people even answered the door, which seemed like a good time to quit with the whole love thy neighbour thing. I'll just stick to the nearest neighbours, who recognise me as not being a 'stranger' next time.

It is amazing how different the view looks from my neighbours' doorsteps. As StreetBank, a community sharing online group, pointed out recently, you choose your friends, who tend to be like you and share your values. Whereas your neighbours can bring different perspectives from a whole range of cultures and backgrounds, so there is so much more opportunity for learning different perspectives or something new. This has certainly given me food for thought.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

90% energy correction

So I have got it wrong! I have just found the original 'Riot for Austerity' Rules as laid out by Sharon Astyk, and it gives all the average US consumption figures to compare with. Of course it would have been good to have found this earlier :)

It turns out that when the US Energy Information Administration gives a figure for domestic energy consumption it is just heating energy and doesn't include electricity. No wonder it was all in BTUs! So if you look back to Part 1: Choices in March you will see the following table comparing my energy consumption with the average US consumption. If we add in the additional 11,000kWh per year of electricity consumption for the average household that I inadvertently missed off, it changes everything. I'm sorry if I have misled anyone with my mistake.

Average Household Energy Consumption kWh
Average Household Energy Consumption Btu
US 2009
(Actually 40,587)
(Actually 138,500,000)
UK 2009
My home 2009
My home 2012
90% reduction target
(Actually 4,058)
(Actually 13,850,000)

I am somewhat relieved to find that our household consumption is already only 56% of the average US household, rather than 86%, and it certainly makes the target seem much more achievable. Whilst I am not prepared to give up my fridge and use a coolbox as Sharon did, I have got plans for further energy reductions, including installing solar PV panels to generate electricity and reduce my grid-supplied electricity by around 40%.

The relief didn't last long because I started thinking about the average person in the US. I had found it incredibly daunting to contemplate an 86% reduction in energy consumption. It is not easy to achieve without significant investment or losing some luxuries, like a warm home and a fridge. Yet on the other hand how can we justify the vast amount of energy we use when millions of people get by with very little at all. And here's me fretting about giving up my fridge!

Here is a graph that I spotted in the UK Energy Trends for September 2013 from the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Though not about the domestic energy consumption it shows the disparity in consumption for crude oil across OECD countries, and I think demonstrates the point. It is showing the proportion of crude oil supply that is produced at home on the vertical 'self-sufficiency' axis. The 'diversity index' along the horizontal axis is showing the stability of the supply. Neither of these features interests me though. It is the size of the bubbles which are used to represent the actual consumption of each of the countries, which made this graph stand out for me. The big blue bubble represents the US crude oil consumption and the red dot on top of it represents the UKs consumption.

This disparity doesn't make reductions any easier, but it just amazes me how the differences can be so large. I can't really get to grips with what it all means, and all sense of outrage or guilt has been suspended. It seems like the choices we make now are even more important than ever.

I have posted the Riot for Austerity rules below in case anyone would like to have a go. It is copied from here I have just inserted a few conversions in to make it easier for us Europeans to compare.

Here are the 7 categories:

1. Gasoline. Average American usage is 500 gallons (2,273 litres) PER PERSON, PER YEAR. A 90 percent reduction would be 50 gallons (227 litres) PER PERSON, PER YEAR.

-No reduction in emissions for ethanol or biodiesel.
-Public transportation and Waste Veggie Oil Fuel are deemed to get 100 mpg, and should be calculated accordingly.

2. Electricity. Average US usage is 11,000 kwh PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR, or about 900 kwh PER HOUSEHOLD PER MONTH. A 90% reduction would mean using 1,100 PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR or 90 kwh PER HOUSEHOLD PER MONTH

- Solar Renewables are deemed to have a 50% payback – that is, you get twice as many watts.
- Hydro and Wind are deemed to have a 4 to 1 payback over other methods – you get 4 times as many.

3. Heating and Cooking Energy – this is divided into 3 categories, gas, wood and oil. Your household probably uses one of these, and they are not interchangeable. If you use an electric stove or electric heat, this goes under electric usage.

- Natural Gas (this is used by the vast majority of US households as heating and cooking fuel). For this purpose, Propane will be calculated as the same as natural gas. Calculations in therms should be available from your gas provider.
- US Average Natural Gas usage is 1000 therms  
(29,307kWh) PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR. A 90% reduction would mean a reduction to 100 therms (2,930kWh) PER HOUSEHOLD PER YEAR
- Heating Oil (this is used by only about 8% of all US households, mostly in the Northeast, including mine).
- Average US usage is 750 Gallons (3,410 litres) PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR. A 90% cut would mean using 75 gallons PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR. Biodiesel is calculated as equivalent.
- Wood. This is a tough one. The conventional line is that wood is carbon neutral, but, of course, wood that is harvested would have otherwise been absorbing carbon and providing forest. There are good reasons to be skeptical about this. So I’ve divided wood into two categories.
- Locally and sustainably harvested, and either using deadwood, trees that had to come down anyway, coppiced or harvested by someone who replaces every lost tree. This is deemed carbon neutral, and you can use an unlimited supply. This would include street trees your town is taking down anyway, wood you cut on your property and replant, coppiced wood (that is, you cut down some part of the tree but leave it to grow), and standing and fallen deadwood. You can use as much of this as you like.
- Wood not sustainably harvested, or transported long distances, or you don’t know. 1 cord of this is equal to 15 gallons of oil or 20 therms of natural gas.

4. Garbage – the average American generates about 4.5 lbs (2kg) of garbage PER PERSON, PER DAY. A 90% reduction would mean .45 lbs (0.2kg) of garbage PER PERSON, PER DAY.

5. Water. The Average American uses 100 Gallons (450 litre) of water PER PERSON, PER DAY. A 90% reduction would mean 10 gallons (45 litres) PER PERSON, PER DAY.

6. Consumer Goods. The best metric I could find for this is using money. A Professor at Syracuse University calculates that as an average, every consumer dollar we spend puts .5 lbs (0.2kg) of carbon into the atmosphere. This isn’t perfect, of course, but it averages out pretty well.

The average American spends 10K (£6,200 or 7,400 Euros) PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR on consumer goods, not including things like mortgage, health care, debt service, car payments, etc… Obviously, we recommend you minimize those things to the extent you can, but what we’re mostly talking about is things like gifts, toys, music, books, tools, household goods, cosmetics, toiletries, paper goods, etc… A 90% cut would be 1,000 dollars (£620 or 740 Euros) PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR

~_ _+ Used goods are deemed to have an energy cost of 10% of their actual purchase price. That is, if you buy a used sofa for $50, you just spent $5 of your allotment. The reason for this is that used goods bought from previous owners put money back into circulation that is then spent on new goods. This would apply to Craigslist, Yardsales, etc… but not Goodwill and other charities, as noted below. This rule does not apply if you know that the item would otherwise be thrown out – that is, if someone says, “If you don’t buy it, I’m going to toss it.” Those items are unlimited as well, because they keep crap out of landfills.
~_ _+ Goods that were donated are deemed to be unlimited, with no carbon cost. That is, you can spend all you want at Goodwill and the church rummage sale. Putting things back into use that would otherwise be tossed should be strongly encouraged.

7. Food. This was by far the hardest thing to come up with a simple metric for. Using food miles, or price gives what I believe is a radically inaccurate way of thinking about this. So here’s the best I can do. Food is divided into 3 categories.

1- is food you grow, or which is produced *LOCALLY AND ORGANICALLY* (or mostly – it doesn’t have to be certified, but should be low input, because chemical fertilizers produce nitrous oxide which is a major greenhouse contributor). Local means within 100 miles to me. This includes all produce, grains, beans, and meats and dairy products that are mostly either *GRASSFED* or produced with *HOME GROWN OR LOCALLY GROWN, ORGANIC FEED.* That is, chicken meat produced with GM corn from IOWA in Florida is not local. A 90% reduction would involve this being AT LEAST 70% of your diet, year round. Ideally, it would be even more. I also include locally produced things like soap in this category, if most of the ingredients are local.

#2 is is *DRY, BULK* goods, transported from longer distances. That is, *whole, unprocessed* beans, grains, and small light things like tea, coffee, spices (fair trade and sustainably grown *ONLY*), or locally produced animal products partly raised on unprocessed but non-local grains, and locally produced wet products like oils. This is hard to calculate, because Americans spend very little on these things (except coffee) and whole grains don’t constitute a large portion of the diet. These are comparatively low carbon to transport and produce. Purchased in bulk, with minimal packaging (beans in 50lb paper sacks, pasta in bulk, tea loose, by the pound, rather than in little bags), this would also include things like recycled toilet paper, purchased garden seeds and other light, dry items. This should be no more than 25% of your total purchases.

#3 is Wet goods – conventionally grown meat, fruits, vegetables, juices, oils, milk etc… transported long distances, and processed foods like chips, soda, potatoes. Also regular shampoo, dish soap, etc… And that no one should buy more than 5% of their food in this form. Right now, the above makes up more than 50% of everyone’s diet.

Thus, if you purchase 20 food items in a week, you’d use 14 home or locally produced items, 5 bulk dry items, and only 1 processed or out of season thing

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Permanence and trust

You don't see that many telephone boxes around now, they are becoming extinct since the advent of mobile phones, but I came across this one in a little village called Shirley in Derbyshire. It looks grand!

Can you see how the villagers have put it to good use? It is in the centre of the village, so they have put a noticeboard inside for the village events, and also use it as a 'book swap' store. You can help yourself to the books, as long as you leave the same number of books as you take. This system seems to be working very well, because all the shelves are full and the books look in very good condition, even the childrens books.

The phone box is left open, even though Shirley attracts lots of walkers and tourists. No doubt the villagers benefit from fresh books when the visitors have finished with their holiday reads :)
I commented on a blog recently, discussing Peak Oil and financial collapse. Some of the other responses felt that I was being naive, to think that my neighbours would be helpful in an emergency situation, or that I could trust anyone. They clearly have never experienced a place like Shirley, or most of the UK for that matter. I am of the opinion that Trust Breeds Trust. If you show someone trust and respect, then they will act in a trustworthy manner. It is a very simple principle that we all learn about trust from each other. It says a lot that many people in the UK don't think twice about leaving their doors unlocked in the daytime when they are at home.

Well this is beautiful Shirley, a lovely place for a country walk, and the Saracens Head pub, where you can get hot food and drink.

I had a conversation with one of the villagers, a complete stranger, whilst waiting for my friend to arrive. He was telling me the history of the village, which had records as far back as 1086, when it was owned by the de Ferrers family. Most of the hundreds of years in between the land was owned by descendants of the same family. The current Earl Ferrers now resides in Norfolk, and most of the land has been sold on.

It is fascinating how slowly things change, and how constant things are. This village has been around for a thousand years or so, with a church, pub and a few farms and houses, that may have been re-built in brick a few hundred years ago, but are essentially the same village. Invasions, wars, plagues and industrialisation have hardly changed it. It is amazing and it makes me wonder how much can really change in something as short as my lifetime?

Whilst walking, my friend Sonia asked, 'Do you really think that Peak Oil is still happening?'. Eight years ago we both firmly believed it was, but business as usual has dragged on so long now, and big stories of how fracking will save us fill the media, so I can understand why many people are questioning.

I have no doubts about Peak Oil happening, but looking at the permanence of Shirley the question on my mind is 'What would peak oil change?' Or even 'What would a financial collapse change?' The land is constant, the fields and woodlands will still stand, along with the stream flowing past the abandoned woodmill. The fields have cattle grazing, just as they would have over the last hundreds of years, and probably will for the next few hundred. We will still need to eat, there will still be farming. Maybe the village will sprout some cheap labourers cottages, the wood mill will be occupied once more and the countryside will have a growing population rather than a declining one, as more people are needed to work on the land.

I don't know how things will pan out, but talk of extinction, an epidemic of violence and people only looking out for themselves, seems completely alien in this land. I am looking at the evidence around me. I am talking to my neighbours, people I meet out walking or in shops, or just random strangers anywhere, and they are polite and helpful. Just try it in your neighbourhood as a bit of a social experiment - ask the time, pretend you are lost, or say you are looking for your cat or have lost you keys. I would love to hear how you get on.

We didn't recognise the route we were taking for our walk, so after asking 2 or 3 walkers, we accosted a gentleman on horseback to ask directions, and he was most helpful. He didn't really know where the footpath we were trying to find was, but he happily told us that the shoot was over for the day, so we were in no danger if we got lost!

Will Peak Oil or financial collapse change people's nature for the worse? Not in a place like Shirley.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Believe that you can do it

My good friend Carol visited me and generously brought with her bountiful vegetables and preserves all produced from her toil and hard work. She has been busy this year researching how much you can produce organically per acre, so everything has been weighed and carefully recorded. Doesn’t it look splendid?

Just to give you an idea of scale, here is a sweetheart cabbage from the supermarket on the left and the huge organic sweetheart cabbage from Carol on the right. Enough for four meals worth!

Carol is one of those inspirational people that we all need to meet and hear about, because she is the living evidence that you can do anything if you believe that you can. We first met at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) whilst studying, and if you ever get the chance to visit CAT then I would thoroughly recommend it. For me it was life changing J Carol was also inspired by one of the course modules on green building materials, particularly building with strawbales. She decided she could do that and she did.

Now Carol’s previous occupation was as an accountant, so it was a bit of a change to jump into building houses. Her family are farmers and clearly have a very positive attitude of just getting on and doing things. Even so it took an incredible amount of time to get planning permission to build a straw bale cottage as a holiday home, on their land. Not content to just wait 2 years for the planners, Carol built the strawbale cabin above. It was built on a mobile home chassis, so was classed as a temporary building. You can see how the build progressed here. Both the cabin and the cottage are available for holidays or quiet retreats, so if you fancy a break in the Yorkshire countryside, only 20 minutes from historic York this is an ecologically friendly place to stay.

Carol has trained, advised and inspired countless others to build ecologically and using local materials such as strawbales, in addition to the valuable research she carried out on the thermal performance of strawbale buildings. Her son continues building strawbale homes for people, but Carol has now seen another urgent area where research and action is required. 
The UK is a net food importer and is currently unable to grow sufficient food to feed the population. With Peak Oil set to increase the cost of transportation and chemical fertilisers, Carol wanted to investigate how much food we can produce organically, but struggled to find anyone willing to fund this research. Undeterred she has taken it upon herself, setting aside some land and devoting her time and energy to growing a whole range of vegetables.  She has been carefully analysing the results, so her report can contribute to planning for a future with less oil, where more of the food we eat needs to be grown locally and sustainably.

If we continue with business as usual the future looks pretty bleak, so we have nothing to lose from trying something different or new. Next time you have an idea or an opportunity to do something positive, don't listen to the naysayers who tell you that you can't. Think about Carol and remember that you can do anything that you want to do, even build a house or change the future of farming, if you believe that you can J

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Energy on my mind

I visited the home of Dr Tina Holt recently. I have mentioned previously that Tina has retrofitted her old draughty home to Passive House standards and additionally added solar PV panels on the roof to generate electricity. I should have taken some pictures, but the video below shows the improvements in progress. The super-insulated home needs very little heating and the income generated by Feed-In-Tariffs from the solar panels is enough to cover the energy bills for electricity, hot water, heating and cooking. Energy is now free for Tina!

So with Tina’s overall energy costs at zero, it seemed prudent to look ahead and project my energy costs over the next few years, especially as one of the big energy providers in the UK has just increased their prices by 8%, just in time for winter.

I have records of energy consumption and cost for the last 13 years, and combining the data for gas and electricity the average annual price rise has been 14% a year. This is not based on an average home or average supplier price rises, but on my actual energy bills. This means the price to some extent is dependent on me switching suppliers regularly to get the best deal, which is not always the case, as I have spent the last 2 years on a very green tariff, which is not the cheapest. In the graph below I have fixed my energy consumption at the 5 year average of a combined 19,765kWh, so that I can just compare the price. The graph shows the actual combined gas and electricity price I paid up until 2012, where there is a full year of data, and then from this point onwards the graph splits into 2 projections up to 2020. The lowest projection is based on an 8% increase each year, which is lower than my average. The second projection is for a 14% increase each year, which assumes that prices will rise at a similar rate to the last 13 years. Personally I see prices spiking at potentially higher amounts, but these scenarios are enough to demonstrate the issue.

With an annual increase of 8%, my energy bills will have nearly doubled by 2020, from £1,398 to £2,588. At an average 14% increase it nearly triples to £3,989. This means that I need to reduce my energy consumption by 65%, just to break even. I am certainly not predicting that my wages will increase at the same rate, so I need to take action to reduce my consumption.

The boss of SSE was interviewed about the recent price rise and was asked why costs are being passed on to customers rather than being absorbed by a drop in profits, at a time when many companies have had to take a hit on their profits. His response was that their profit was only 5%, which was 'fair'. What he failed to point out is that this is as much as the government take as tax. More to the point though is that the big six energy companies in the UK made a profit of £3.74 billion in 2012. If the energy prices double by 2020 and the energy companies are still taking a 5% profit they could be getting a staggering £7.5 billion a year.

It just goes to show how we can be hoodwinked. It means so much more to know the actual amount of money not just how much their share is. Do we think they deserve 5% of the profit? I mean have they run the companies wisely, by investing in renewables and new infrastructure? Hell no! OK, so they have done a very good job at keeping the lights on so far, but this winter we will be at the greatest risk of blackouts and shortages for many years, and that is through lack of investment and forward thinking over 10 to 15 years or more.

The energy companies are also digging their own graves though. As prices rise people reduce their consumption, either by investing in energy efficiency and renewables or by cutting back their energy usage to the bare basics out of necessity. So the increase in energy company profits will not be rising as significantly. In addition the cost of investing in new power stations or wind farms is rising, because of the increase in energy and resource costs, so there is no benefit to dragging your feet. On the same breath if they let the lights go out there are penalties and fees, on top of the lack of income whilst electricity isn’t flowing. 

There is plenty of evidence to show that Tina really has the right idea. Super-insulate your house, to reduce your need for energy as much as you can. Make it the best that you can afford to, and look for cheap options if money is tight, such as thick curtains, window quilts, thick underlay underneath carpets and sealing up draughts. There is ECO funding available to help people who have uninsulated solid walls, and for those who are 'vulnerable' or on low income. The Green Deal can also provide a loan for some of the improvements, but this is a loan paid back through energy bills and bears interest. A good place to start is with the Energy Savings Trust.
Then consider renewable energy to reduce your exposure to buying energy and protect you from price spikes. Even if you get the solar PV installed for free and the installer gets the benefits of the Feed-In-Tariff payments (in the UK), you will still be reducing your electricity bill by using the free renewable energy during the day. Similarly the Renewable Heat Incentive will soon benefit a switch to biomass or solar hot water, by providing payments for the energy generated.

Be aware though that the insulation will protect you and keep you warm in a power cut, but solar PV panels will not in the UK, if you are grid connected. If renewable energy is still feeding into the grid there could be a danger to engineers working on power lines, so all grid-connected renewable energy automatically switches off in a powercut. If you are not grid-connected then you won’t receive the financial benefit of the FITs.

Plans on saving 65% or more of our energy consumption start today! I’ll keep you posted J

Thursday, 10 October 2013

I've peaked!

This month is my Birthday, and I am officially at my 'Peak' age. Below is the card I received from my mother. Thanks mum!

Funnily enough I felt more disturbed by the colourful message I received from google. I don't recall filling in my date of birth, let alone giving permission for them to use it in their sneaky clever marketing ploys! Are there no privacy laws left?

But really, is down hill that bad? Getting up to this point is such hard work. I mean we have to learn everything from scratch, from tying shoe laces to strange social cues. Then we are climbing a ladder, trying to pass exams, get a career, buy a home, raise a family and juggle all manner of urgent issues to keep life ticking over. Maybe free-wheeling down the otherside is going to be the fun bit!? It may lead to a time when I actually get to sit and enjoy my garden, or read a book, or not have to work for money - now wouldn't that be bliss?

What about Peak Oil? Should we be scared to be at the peak looking down? There are so many different opinions on this, ranging from 'technology will provide a solution' to 'we are facing the extinction of man', that it can be bewildering and scary to contemplate. One thing is certain though, oil is becoming harder and more expensive to extract, and prices are going to continue rising.

Oil prices are linked to recession. Almost all productive activity in our economy is reliant on oil, from ploughing a field, to building a house, to trading round the world. When oil prices increase it has a knock on effect on everything else. If you want to find out more about this rather than take my word for it, try reading 'Oil supply limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis' by Gail Tverberg on her blog Our Finite World.

I think we can expect that oil prices will rise to a new record high, which will cause another recession. Some people feel that we are only months away from this happening. Tom Therramus in his post 'Oil Price Volatility on the Way?' suggests that based on the last 10 years the price spikes have had an average of 33 months between them. It is 30 months since the last price spike, so we don't have long to wait to see if he is right.

Governments and financial institutions have not really recovered from the last major financial disruption, and if anything are even more burdened with debt, which is certainly true of the UK, so it seems very likely that there will be more financial wrecks. Whether there is a full global financial meltdown at that point I don't know, but there is likely to be more countries and banks collapsing. If you have savings then I hope you paid attention to what happened in Cyprus. There is so much to say about financial collapse that I will come back to it in another post.

Demand for oil slows down during a recession, so normally oil prices would drop back again. This is why many predict a rollercoaster of highs and lows for oil prices. But I'm not so sure, because at some point the World will wake up to the fact that oil is getting scarce. In these circumstances I wonder whether most countries would put their own needs first and and hold back on selling any surplus until they can extort the best price.

Ok, it is a pretty bleak predicament.... if you are hooked on oil. The best preparation we can make for ourselves and our communities is to reduce our oil dependence fast. That is not just about driving less, it is about adapting our lifestyles to a new reality. One where we don't depend on plastic wrapped 'stuff' imported from the other side of the World.

There are many people around the world who live without oil and all it's 'luxuries', and the rest of us are going to find out what that is like quite soon. I can see that there could be some benefits to life without oil, for rural communities who know how to feed themselves and can enjoy a simple life. I hope they get a better deal without all the oil-fuelled deforestation, and exploitation for resources and cheap goods. Peak oil writers often depict a future of oil wars, but as you need oil and money to fight the war, and war depletes both even faster, I can see a future where wars will peter out. It is really food and water that is central to our lives, along with shelter, basic healthcare and community.

Just as for me, where the attractive side of the slope has slipped away, and crazy eyebrow hairs and wrinkles are what I can look forward to, the otherside of the Peak Oil slope can look rather ugly on the surface too. It's not all as bad as it seems though, because the last 40 years has been about learning and developing. Beneath the superficial view on the surface, there are hidden depths of knowledge and wisdom. Suddenly reaching the peak may be a bit of a shock and need a period of adjustment, but we can adapt to a reduction in oil consumption.

The population is likely to take a hit, but that's another story too. I may have to face that my half-way point was probably ten years ago, because with severely reduced oil-supported healthcare, life expectancy may drop. Dmitry Orlov talks of a shortened life expectancy caused by the financial crisis and break up of the former Soviet Union in his book 'Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects', where diseases spread from the overcrowded prisons and there were middle-aged suicides when people found their lives in ruin. It seems much more likely to me that life expectancy will drop as an impact of the stress of loss of savings, earnings and security, combined with reductions in healthcare and spread of disease, rather than from wars or riots. The BBC ran a news story recently about how birthrate is decreasing in Europe, especially in Southern areas like Spain, because people don't want to have children without financial security.

So here I am trying frantically to unlearn the habits and expectations that have been drilled in to me for the best part of 40 years. I'm training myself to enjoy walking in the countryside rather than getting excited by a cheap flight to Barcelona. I'm learning to grow my own produce for excellent seasonal flavours, rather than buying the flown in exotic foods. I am finding that more choice of clothes only means it takes longer to choose what to wear (Thank you Jo for that insight), and that there is more fun and bargains to be had buying secondhand at the carboot sale, without having exploited factory workers and poisoned cotton farmers on my conscience.

This is downshifting. This is changing down a gear ready for a steep descent. It isn't living in fear, it is being realistic about what the future may hold. This is not hiding away in a bunker, but moving forward with your eyes wide open and your brain engaged. Different people will be coming from a different starting point, but the important thing is to think through the possible scenarios and see how you could be better prepared to face them.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Review of 'Blackout'

I recently watched Channel 4's drama 'Blackout', which I was tipped off about by a post by Jason Heppenstall on 22 Billion Energy Slaves. It is about Britain facing a week-long, nationwide power cut and how different people react to the impending shortages. The BBC aired a similarly themed programme in 2004 called 'If The Lights Go Out', which is also worth a watch (see end of post). It has more interviews with experts and less 'dramatisation' than Blackout. With Blackout I was left wondering if they had started with all the images of looting from 2011, and thought how can we knit this into a plot.

The prospect of facing blackouts in the UK is very real, as mentioned previously. I like to follow Mike Pepler's blog Peak Oil Update for a good summary of the situation in the UK - in short expect high prices and energy shortages. A power cut that encompasses the whole country for a week is a severe situation and beyond our current experience though. We have been rather lulled into a false sense of security over the past few decades, because power cuts haven't been particularly common or widespread, with the main cause being severe weather damage, although strikes have led to shortages in the past. At the same time our dependence on electricity has grown. Central heating systems are electrically controlled, wages are paid electronically, and communication is via mobiles and email which rely on power sources for the individual units and the networks. We used to just have a landline phone and the postman. Imagine that ;-)

It is the fear of violence, which switches most people off dealing with the possibility of prolonged power cuts. Whereas many aspects of power cuts could be prepared for at an individual and community level, the media projections of mass looting and rioting help to paralyse us.

Violence, especially random, anger-fuelled violence, is scary for me too. So a few years back I carried out some research. I'm no expert, but I read enough from different sources to convince me that people become more friendly and community-minded during a disaster, and looting is far less prevalent than you think. I researched Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath, which was an event that was still very fresh in my mind. To recap, in 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast of the US, devastating the area, and damaging the New Orleans flood defences. Of the 1.3 million population, it is thought that 80% evacuated, but many without transport were unable to leave the city. After the hurricane, residents of New Orleans that hadn't been evacuated were left for almost a week with no power, fresh water, food supplies or emergency assistance, whilst 80% of the city was still flooded.

I remember watching all the news reports along with the rest of the world, in utter disbelief that no one was going to help these people. Such was the concern around the world that aid was offered from countries such as Bangledesh, India, Venezuela and Russia, because no one wanted to see the continued suffering. (The UK offered emergency food rations, which were turned down by the US government because of concern about Mad Cow Disease.)

There is plenty of information about Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath, which is well worth a read, and shows the catalogue of failures. But when help arrived it was in the form of heavily armed military who were expecting to be having gun battles with hoards of looters and violent criminals. What they found were desperate people who didn't know what to do or where to get help, let alone be able to organise a violent protest. They were far more concerned with surviving and, as many of the stories show, helping others.

As for the looting, well there is a vast difference with looting to plunder and steal valuable luxury goods, like the scenes depicted in Blackout, and taking items necessary for survival such as bottled water, food and medicines. If you will die without water and no one is there to help you, then you would do what is necessary to survive. This isn't looting, this is survival, as the report 'Disaster Realities in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: Revisiting the Looting Myth', by the Disaster Research Centre at the University of Delaware explains.

"Appropriating behavior involves a person taking property owned by another to use it for emergency purposes and, depending upon the item, with the intent of returning it at a later date. There were many reports of both looting and appropriating behavior occurring following the storm."

However they did not find the evidence of widespread looting that the media portrayed. The number of arrests for looting was still far less, than the average number of arrests for crime in a normal day. If there is a criminal element in society, then they may see an opportunity during disasters, but that doesn't add up to widespread looting. There were far more accounts noted of 'pro-social' behaviour, that is people trying to help others for no reward. It is distressing to see people in such a dire situation and the majority of people, anywhere in the world, respond by helping in any way they can.

Blackout, which is just depicting a severe power cut - no floods, storms, or immediate loss of life - appears to be over-exaggerating the public reaction in it's dramatisation, by comparison. Interestingly last week the spin doctor of former prime minister Gordon Brown was quoted as saying in an extract from his book, that when the extent of the financial crisis in 2008 became clear, Gordon Brown was discussing deployment of troops on streets to prevent panic. The events in Blackout, would have clearly provoked such a deployment very early on, but this was not scripted in.

How long would it be before people really started running out of water and food? I think it would take far longer than is portrayed in Blackout. As soon as it is known that the power cut could potentially last more than a day or two, local councils can start public announcements, reminding people to stay at home, fill their bath tub with water, and check on their neighbours. I would guess that most people would have food to last a week. They may run out of fresh milk and bread, but pasta and tinned beans are in the back of most people's cupboards. Sanitation may become more of a problem, but if you have a garden then there is the option to dig a pit.

Blackout seemed to miss out that without mobiles and internet, people will still want to know what's going on, and the first thing most people would do is go out into the street and start talking to neighbours or passersby about the situation. People get advised to stay home in a powercut, so why wouldn't they? There may be gridlock on the roads initially, but people will soon stop travelling to work or shops if they are closed or empty.

"Based on expert advice and meticulous research, Blackout combines real user-generated footage, alongside fictional scenes, CCTV archive and news reports to build a terrifyingly realistic account of Britain being plunged into darkness." is how Channel 4 describe Blackout.

Terrifying yes., or at least only in some aspects. For instance it is only 3 hours drive from London to Sheffield and you could walk it in 53 hours according to google maps, but in Blackout they drove, and walked, and drove again for 7 days to get there. Why would all the motorways be clogged in a power cut? Motorways don't rely on traffic lights, and have a hard shoulder to pull in on, so without a mass exodus or evacuation, they should become empty within a day or two. There was little sign of community spirit and pro-social behaviour, other than an offer of a lift, a neighbour taking in some elderly neighbours in her high rise, and a ruluctant sharing of a barbeque to cook food. The 'survivalist' character lived with his family in isolation, no siblings or friends arrived to share the benefits of the diesel generator and he had no concern about what was going on outside his four walls. Had he knocked on his neighbours door and said our food has been stolen, he may have been given a few tins of something, or could even have bartered some of his petrol for a meal.

The characters in this dramatisation showed no ingenuity at all, and community spirit was thin on the ground. We live in a society where there are thousands of volunteers - people who do something useful for society for no financial reward. The evidence shows we are a generous nation when it comes to giving to charity to help people worse off than ourselves. Blackout seems so far from my experiences of people and human nature, that I wonder about the 'expert advice and meticulous research' that it is supposed to be based on.

Blackout is realistic that after a power cut you need cash to buy what is available from the shops that remain open, as card machines won't be working and banks would be closed. Shops may initially be very busy with people trying to hoard essentials like bottled water, batteries, candles and food. It is realistic that filling stations will be closed as they cannot pump fuel.  Mobile phone networks may be overloaded and only have backup power for a few days, but Blackout has missed the role of radios and landlines. Also, there was no suggestion of emergency shelters being setup, even though this is a common occurence after disasters have hit.

Can you see where personal preparation fits in to this? Just keeping some cash in the house for emergencies is beneficial. A bottle of unscented bleach means that you can sterilise water with just a couple of drops. A few candles and matches or torches and batteries to provide emergency lighting most householders would have available, just as a barbeque or camping stove to heat food is fairly common. A shovel to dig a pit or sturdy strong bin bags are not expensive items to have and a wind-up radio is also useful. Increasing your stored food and essential medicines, is not too much to ask, is it?

How far you want to take preparedness is down to what you personally feel the risks are. If you see a powercut as a set of challenges that we could be better prepared for, rather than the scary, collapse depicted in Blackout, then it's possible to overcome the paralysis and think through solutions to situations. Although I disagree with it's claim to be realistic, I am grateful for programmes like Blackout, for being thought-provoking, for reminding us of the risks and for keeping us on our toes :)

Monday, 23 September 2013

6 month roundup

Back in March, having read "Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front" by Sharon Astyk, I started comparing my lifestyle with the average American, and the average Brit, and looking at the possibility of reducing our consumption by 90%. Ploughing through the figures made me realise really how difficult a 90% reduction in anything was going to be. My assumption that compared to the Americans we consumed less, so we would have a massive headstart, only panned out to be a small headstart. Still it was worth looking at what could be achieved, and it prompted a change in habits.

Reducing my impact in the food category, has involved increasing my home grown produce, shopping more locally and trying to avoid excess packaging. Free food has been available from growing more produce in my garden, helping at the Transition community allotment and sharing the harvest, and gifts or exchanges from family and friends. Along with my normal food foraging forays, I have been introduced to food rescued from supermarket skips. One bad pear in a bag of 6, results in the whole bag being thrown away. I am certainly learning and improving in this area, and there is far more potential for reducing the impact of our food than I had originally thought. Having only a small garden and little spare time have not been the limiting factors that I had expected. The image above shows all the free food from last weekend :)

Certainly on the 'stuff' level we have really achieved quite a big change. Looking back at the 'One Month Stuff' project, I can see several items that I have found ways to obtain for free. Some of it requires a bit of time and effort, or an exchange of goods with others, which is very sociable and can lead to making new friends. The local car boot sale has been a great source of low cost secondhand goods, and I have even managed to get myself clothes from there, which have quickly become my comfortable favourites. Cheaper and more fun than ebay! No fur or fringes like Macklemore yet :) I have never been one to rummage, but I am learning new tricks and really enjoying it too.

New stuff for the kids is a difficult area to tackle. Recently there have been new shoes, clothes and sports equipment, as it is the start of a new school year. Overall, questioning whether things are really necessary and if they can be bought more ethically elsewhere has been an easy habit to pick up. If I have to buy new, then there may still be ethical options, but they tend to have a higher pricetag, like this georgeous handcrafted cherry wood chopping board that I bought from the local Woodfair event. (Ok - impulse buy!)

Recycled waste has dropped by a third and non recyclable waste has reduced further. The recycled waste savings are partly business, with a reduction in cardboard scraps. Changing from liquid soap to bars of soap, and buying more goods from the market has cut packaging too. We only have about 2 carrier bags of non-recyclable waste each week, which is pretty good for a large family and 2 businesses. More food scraps and cardboard is now going into the compost bin. I was wondering if old cotton rags can be composted too, as I really can't put them in the textile recycling. Does anyone know?

My hubby has also been very good at repairing broken goods this month, such as replacing an iphone screen, which has saved on getting new stuff and reduced waste. He didn't even have any random parts or odd screws leftover at the end ;) What a pro!

Transport, though I never got round to comparing the figures, did show some improvement for a while over the summer. My youngest son started biking to school and tennis club, and I was walking to school with my youngest daughter. It seemed great, but then my son went over his handlebars...on two occasions! No serious injuries luckily, but I'm a bit concerned about a third time. The walking has been cut back too as it seems a bit cruel walking to school and back without bringing Lottie our dog, who is stuck at home.

Sitting in the car reading my book whilst my daughter is at dance lessons, halves the travelling back and forth, and we also give lifts to 3 other girls, reducing our share of emissions. But then add in the additional trips driving to the carboot sale, farm shop, weekly market, and community allotment, which are all further away, so I doubt there has been any reduction in driving habits over the last 6 months. Still, with no daily commute and most facilities close at hand we were already below the average mileage. Just a lot still to do to reach the 90% target.

Energy is my hot topic, and I was gobsmacked that the electricity company reduced our direct debit payments by 10%! Electricity consumption is so difficult to cut back on. All efficiency measures tend to be wiped out by the increase in number or size of gadgets. For instance, 15 years ago we had one landline phone that wasn't plugged in, but now everyone in the house has their own mobile too. I checked my energy data and we have only seen a 3% reduction in electricty consumption over the last year. This is dismal, especially since I was expecting savings whilst my eldest daughter was at Uni. The graph below shows the actual energy consumption as the red line, and the green columns show the cost. (The big column in 2009 shows how energy companies increase the price of your tariff
if you don't compare and switch every 2 years!)

We have been making small improvements, like disconnecting the modem at night, (although I always forget to plug it back in in the morning and wonder why there are no emails) switching off the landing light and having a very efficient nightlight (the kids bedroom is right in front of the stairs, so if they get up at night they could fall - safety before efficiency!) and more recently replacing some of the lights for LEDs. We have tried LEDs before and the light was so bad that we ended up taking them out again. The light from LEDs has improved greatly over the last couple of years, and these ones in our office should pay for themselves in about 2.5 years. Thank goodness, because they are awfully expensive to buy compared to standard lamps. Hopefully we will see reductions in consumption longer term.

Gas consumption for heating has increased, mainly due to the long winter. Adjusting for degree days the consumption would be about the same as the trend for the last few years, so there still would have been no reduction in consumption had the winter been milder. Actual annual consumption is shown below by the dark blue line, whilst the columns show the actual cost.

Super-insulating the house has got to be the best solution to reduce the need for heating. That way not only do you substantially reduce heating costs, but in the event of a supply failure you are better prepared to survive without heating. Dr Tina Holt is our local hero, for retro-fitting her 1930's house to passive house standards and promoting the work as part of the Hobbs report for Transition West Bridgford. It may be far more appealing to consider a new home built from scratch, but it is perfectly possible to retofit if you pay attention to the details. It certainly has the potential to give a significant proportion of the energy saving we are looking for.

What is quite clear is that these relatively small incremental steps can only take me so far towards a 90% reduction in carbon emissions, and a far more significant change is required to get anywhere near the 90% target. This could come about by moving to somewhere with more land and a woodburner, leading us to become more self-sufficient for food and heating, as Sharon Astyk has. Or by retro-fitting our current home, so it is super-insulated, with solar water heating and PV for electricity generation. These are the voluntary options, but there is also the possibility of rocketing fuel prices or financial collapse putting us in a position where we are forced to go without some of the luxuries we are accustomed to. If energy prices are high do you choose to keep your fridge running or watch x-factor? Do you heat your home or have a hot bath? Many people round the World live without any of these luxuries in the first place.

Personally I prefer the voluntary options don't you? Reducing my consumption levels now, may help to cushion the shock of changes that are coming. Even the small changes are adaptions that bring us closer.

It is so nice writing a good news post and sharing achievements, but I am warning you now that this isn't going to continue. It is a wonderful distraction to discuss my garden or secondhand bargains, but it is not the reason that I started this blog.

We are on the brink of massive changes and upheavals, peak everything from peak energy and peak debt to peak pensioners, climate change altering everything we thought we knew about seasons and weather patterns, and the massively unfair distribution of wealth sparking social discontent. Although we feel as if changes happen slowly and incrementally, history has been much more a series of necessary rapid adaptions to a sudden change in circumstances. It's scary and challenging and there is plenty to discuss in future posts to help become better prepared.