Saturday, 31 May 2014

Waking up to shortages

There have been two articles recently that have demonstrated that more and more people are becoming aware of the looming energy crisis. The first was in the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) Journal called 'When The Lights Go Out' by Bill Wright (May 2014, page 34). It focuses on the national issue in the UK of a shortage of electricity generation. It is clear that since privatisation in 1990 there has been an under-investment in new power generation. Now we are in a situation where power stations are reaching the end of their useful lives or will not meet tighter EU pollution regulations so have been shutdown, without new power stations coming online to replace them.

Ofgem (the gas and electricity regulatory body in the UK) have been warning of this for some time and I have written about it previously here. Writing for a commercial market, Bill explains the impact of even a short period of power cuts and encourages engineers to be prepared by having backup diesel generators and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS). Articles like this help to plant seeds in peoples minds and as it is aimed specifically at engineers who are responsible for implementing these backup measures, it will hopefully lead to better preparedness. It would take a major power cut or severe warnings from government to result in full-scale preparedness, but it is still a sign that concern is building.

It is the peak demand times when we are at the greatest risk of power cuts, other than from storm damage or severe weather. On a very cold winters evening, around 4 to 5pm, when many people are getting home from work and switching on heating, ovens, kettles etc., is the peak demand in the UK. In warmer parts of the world the peak demand comes in extreme hot weather, from air-conditioning use, but air-conditioning is uncommon in homes in the UK.

The UK's electricity network has been so robust, that power cuts are extremely rare. The last blackout I experienced was in 1987 from the Great Storm, and the blackouts since then have been mainly localised from extreme weather events. The next major power cut may come as a shock to many. Very few people have a back-up system or are off-grid. If you have solar PV panels that are linked in to the electricity grid they will be off in a powercut too, so would not provide a safety net.

The main thing that individuals can do to be prepared is to monitor and reduce their energy consumption at all times, but especially during the peak times. It is also prudent to have working torches with spare batteries or candles and matches on hand. I like head torches, because they leave your hands free and I also use mine instead of a bedside light. I have modelled one for you below, and they do look rather silly, but are so practical for jobs, such as changing light bulbs, that they are a worthy investment. You can give them as gifts to friends and family too.

If your heating is from a gas-fired boiler system, the controls will be electric, so it may be worthwhile ensuring you have some back up heating that doesn't need an electric ignition to start it. This is harder to do unless you have a wood stove, but having a gas hob and hot water bottles you can fill is a start. If you have a cordless telephone these won't work without electricity, so have a traditional landline phone with a cord just in case. You can pick these up cheaply from carboot sales or charity shops. Keeping some spare cash, including coins could be useful too as cash machines and credit cards won't be working in a powercut. Some rural areas may also lose water supply in a powercut, so storing bottles of drinking water may also be necessary.

When electricity is tight, it will force a reduction in consumption. In peak demand periods energy companies buy more electricity from Europe at a premium, so increasing prices. Power cuts will add pressure for further investment in electricity generation, so again increasing prices. Whichever way you cut it, prices will go up, making renewable energy systems more attractive and encouraging businesses and homeowners to seriously reduce their energy consumption. High energy prices have a significant effect on reducing consumption.

The other article was on the BBC News website entitled UK 'Needs More Home-grown Energy', based on a report by the Global Sustainability Institute.

"In just over five years Britain will have run out of oil, coal and gas, researchers have warned."

This again isn't anything new, but who else remembers being told that there was enough gas to last until 2030 and 200 years worth of coal at current consumption? Well countless UK mines have been closed, leaving no option but to rely on imports. UK oil production peaked in 1999 and UK gas production peaked soon afterwards in 2001. They now contribute an ever decreasing percentage of our annual consumption, with UK produced gas providing less than 50% of our total gas consumption for 2013. Rising imports may well have contributed to the increasing prices we have seen.

The report also goes on to claim that Russia has 50 years of oil, more than 100 years of gas and 500 years of coal left based on current consumption levels. As with most fossil fuel predictions you have to be aware that they are based upon current levels of consumption. If countries like the UK are increasingly running out of gas and oil, and are being left with little alternative than to turn to Russia to supply them, then the Russian exports may well increase. If you take into account that this week has also seen Russia sign a deal to supply gas to China for the next 10 years, you can see that the level of consumption is not static. If production increases then the fossil fuels will be used up far more quickly.

China have been exploring the possibilities of fracking. I'm not sure that they would have signed this new deal with Russia if there was any real prospect of fracking meeting their energy requirements. The US have been fracking for a while, but they are still gas importers according to Gail Tverberg in her post The Absurdity of US Natural Gas Exports. The UK government thinks fracking will fill our gap for natural gas, but I think they are deluded. At best it may delay the very real prospect of running out of UK-drilled gas, but at a very high price financially and environmentally.

Russia has some of the remotest landscapes, making drilling for gas or oil, and transporting it long distances, relatively expensive. This could be why they have more fossil fuels remaining than other countries, as when prices were low it was not cost effective to produce. There are clear signs that the highly militarised countries, that are addicted to fossil fuels, are preparing for a power struggle to ensure they have control over the remaining fossil fuel resources.

It would be really good to not be so dependent on fossil fuels right now. Making simple lifestyle changes now, before we are forced by circumstances to make lifestyle changes under pressure, is a good idea. John Michael Greer a leading Peak Oil writer and blogger has used the phrase "Collapse now and avoid the rush" to describe this idea, and he gives a good justification for it. I prefer to think of it as Downshifting. The point is that it is harder to prepare and make changes when everyone is in the same boat and trying to do the same. It is far better to put plans into action now.

"To give yourself a new life, you've gotta give the other one away." (words of a Sara Bareilles song, December) That is what Barry (who's ecohome I discussed in the last post) has done. He has chosen to turn his back on the pursuit of money and some of life's luxuries, like running water and a car, and created a new life where he can manage fairly well without them. What part of our business-as-usual lifestyles would you be prepared to give away?

Friday, 23 May 2014

Barry's ecohome

I spent the Open Homes weekend helping out at Barry's house. It was the most gorgeous weather and we sat at picnic tables in the garden drinking tea and chatting about all number of green issues.

Barry has been very pro-active about reducing his environmental impact for a number of years. He is very practical with technology and DIY so has implemented many of his own solutions, but at the same time he has embraced lifestyle changes to reduce his consumption further. I have been aiming for a 90% reduction compared to the average American, but Barry has in many areas already achieved this, if not surpassed it. Here is how he has done it.

Barry has sold his car and travels everywhere by bicycle, by bus or on foot. He couldn't manage this living in a rural location, but being close to the centre of a small town means that there are shops, the library, the market and bus stops all close by.

Barry doesn't pay any water rates because he is completely off the mains. He collects rainwater from the roof of his house and workshops, and uses various simple methods to filter it, including brush bristles in the guttering to trap the leaves. He also has his own well with a manual pump. Barry decided a manual pump would be safer than fitting an electric pump in case of a power shortage, so Saturday morning involves the light exercise of pumping water to fill a stainless steel drum, which is then enough drinking water for a week. He uses the traditional method of a silver spoon in the bottom of the well to kill bacteria as it slowly corrodes. Barry will drink the rainwater once boiled for tea and it is also diverted to the upstairs bathroom. The toilets are compost loos, so they don't waste water or create a waste stream.

Which nicely brings me on to other waste. Barry composts all his kitchen and garden waste and finds ingenious ways to re-use most things. There are 4 compost bins around the site and the resulting fertility is spread on the garden. One of the compost bins is made from the back end of an old car! (Sorry I forgot to take a photo!) I love this idea! It is stood on end so the car boot is at the top to load compost into. Old beer cans have been welded together to make an original downpipe. Old bike tyres make a surprisingly comfy toilet seat, for a compost toilet made of old washing machine parts, plastic bins and large plant pots.

Barry doesn't like seeing things go to waste and rather than buying things new, can pick up and salvage things that people may throw away in skips. We were sitting on folding picnic benches rescued from a supermarket skip. Barry regularly collects food from the local supermarket skip too. Often things like fruit is thrown away because it is past it's 'display until' date, even though it is still in perfect condition. He also grows fruit and vegetables in his garden.

Barry heats his home using a woodburning stove. His garden is large enough to have plenty of tall trees around the edges, which he trims for firewood, providing a free heating fuel. It also supplies the heat for cooking in winter too.

The main house was built in the 1800's and as such has hard to treat cavity walls. Look at the small gap between the bricks above, which makes it very difficult to add any insulation. The house is in a conservation area, (which means it is very difficult to get approval to change any of the external features of the building) so external wall insulation is not an option.

Barry has chosen to insulate the walls internally. These old terraced houses are pretty small inside by current standards, so internal insulation will reduce the space even more. Small homes are a lot cheaper to keep warm though.

It is a big project which is underway, and has involved moving out while the work is completed. The roof and floors are not being neglected either with insulation board due to be fitted between the rafters and a thick layer of insulation added to the floor. It will be down to the details of the joints to ensure good air tightness.

The windows have been upgraded for double glazing at the side and rear of the building, but the front windows need to retain their original wooden appearance. Barry will be installing secondary glazing internally and is looking into the best way to seal it. On the front door Barry has opted to have a deep reveal to act as a barrier to draughts too.

Barry has solar hot water provided by evacuated tubes, which he had removed for maintenance. You can just make out the unit below the window, with one tube still attached. He saved money by buying the parts and building the system himself. Electricity is also from solar energy. Barry has a large array of PV panels for his workshop roof, as they are not allowed on the South facing house roof, due to the conservation status. These panels feed into a series of batteries and are off grid. This means that when the sun shines they will charge the batteries, giving Barry a low voltage supply of electricity, even in the event of a power cut.

Barry does have a mains electricity supply which he can use if required, but generally he can manage with a low voltage supply. He would like to have a small wind turbine too on the main house, but again that is prohibited.

Barry uses his mains electricity wisely. For instance he will boil the kettle when he wakes in the morning, whilst the electricity is still on the night rate. He heats enough for 4 cups of tea and pours it into a thermos flask to last him the whole day. He also manages without a fridge by storing chilled goods in a container of cold water in the coolest north west corner of the house. Small regular shopping or 'skip-diving' trips also help to reduce the need for chilled food storage. By using the computers and internet access at the library he also avoids many of the standby devices that drain electricity.

The Open Homes visitors had plenty of questions for Barry and he was in his element talking about his ideas and green issues. It is very interesting to see how with a lot of ingenuity and a change of attitudes, it is possible to become more self-sufficient and live a sustainable and ecologically friendly lifestyle.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Up to my neck in it

I have been having fun on my allotment!

I had a tractor trailer full of manure delivered at 7:30am on Monday morning. It was an enormous pile and I just couldn't stop grinning all day as I spread it! The timing was crucial, so that I had a couple of hours to try to make it look smaller before the other plot holders showed up. My plot is plot number 1, everyone passes me as they come in the gate. There is nowhere to hide!

Is it looking smaller yet? This patch of my allotment had not been dug or weeded. I just laid a layer of cardboard over the weeds and spread a good 6 inches of muck over the top. I still had too much left, so then I spread it further over the area that I had already dug. Now one half of my plot is almost all covered with manure and the other side has been traditionally dug.

The other allotmenteers must think I'm crazy. There have been murmurings of "That will never work", "You won't be able to grow anything for 6 months" and "You won't get away with it". There is a notion that the manure will 'burn' the plants, but as I have seen this method in action on the Transition Community Allotment and with my good friend Carol at My Journey Into Food Production I am not so worried. I am following the No Dig method of Charles Dowding. I have watched a couple of his videos and put my trust in him.

Actually for me it just feels right. My plot had sunk a good 6 inches from the plot next door, possibly from the nutrients being taken out with every harvest and not replenished. Also when I dug a row of the soil for potatoes I only saw 2 worms! In my garden at home I find worms in every spadefull! It really did feel like a Birthday present for my plot and the party was a soft, sticky, squidgy and exhausting one! I hope the worms enjoy it ;-)

I kept a small pile of manure to spread round the fruit bushes. I even exchanged 2 barrowful's for 2 freshly picked little gem lettuce, so it was an easy salad to make for dinner. The next day I stomped it all down, which neatened it up. Then I planted some sweetcorn right in the middle. That will shock the pants off some of my neighbours ;-)

The other allotmenteers are a friendly and generous bunch. I have been given sweetcorn, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli seedlings, unusual roots to plant like Oca and Yakon, posts for my bean frame, herbs and fresh Tatsoi and Chinese greens to eat, with further offers of garlic, spinach and a jostaberry bush. They are happy to give you a tour of their plots and show you the delicacies they are growing. It is amazing the full extent of varieties that can be grown, not just the basic fruit and veg you would find in the supermarket.

Every veg grown counts at reducing my impact. It is grown with virtually no fossil fuel use, no chemical fertilisers, only transported a mile to my home, there is no packaging made to hold it, it hasn't been rinsed in bleach or left on a shelf for weeks while the nutrients degrade, and there is no exchange of money to any corporations in order for me to eat it. Jason Heppenstall at 22 Billion Energy Slaves seems to have been thinking similar thoughts this week too. Growing your own veggies goes a long way towards living a 90% lifestyle.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Open Homes event

This weekend Transition Loughborough are holding a free Open Homes event. This is an opportunity to visit some local homes that have a variety of energy efficiency measures installed, meet the homeowners and ask questions. So if you are thinking of improving your home, and are worried about the mess, cost or reliability you can find out first-hand from people who have already done it. For full details of the event check out the website. I will be helping out at Barry's house, so if you are local then please drop in and say hello.

There are also several Open Homes events going on all over the country. To find out if there is an event near you have a look here.

It has been a busy few weeks, but I will catch up with some posts soon :-)

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Frugal purchases

Last year I started looking at how much 'stuff' we buy and set myself a goal to reduce it. I was following Sharon Astyk's Riot for Austerity to some extent, so my rules for what I was buying were somewhat different to those used by Judith Levine in Not Buying It, who was just trying not to buy anything for a year. For instance buying secondhand is good for me, as it is re-using items that other people no longer need and stopping them being thrown away. It also doesn't have the carbon footprint of buying a new item (though there are sometimes some transport emissions involved).

The Riot for Austerity uses the measure of how much you spend each year, with a target of reducing that to 90% of the average American spend. So buying expensive designer goods would work out bad, but then so could buying higher priced fair trade items or locally produced products. Buying secondhand is cheaper (unless you are buying antiques) so it is a very good way to reduce your annual spend. Even better is not buying anything. The ideal for me would be to focus on just buying the raw materials rather than finished goods where possible. So seeds, manure and wood are raw materials, whereas a new oven would be a finished goods. To replace my broken oven I would need to look for a second hand replacement as an alternative to buying new (As I certainly can't make one from raw materials ;-) ). Can you see how this should work?

I would love to have the skills and time to make all my own clothes, so just buying material, thread and wool, but for now buying secondhand is my aim. With this in mind I have been off to my local carboot sale again!

My darling husband always asks why I go to the carboot sale to buy things, when I would be better off selling some of our unwanted 'stuff'. I do occasionally do a stall to sell things, but I find it is much easier to give outgrown kids clothes to friends or family, or to put it in a charity bag. I save far more money buying things than I would make in a day of selling. Let me show you some examples......

This glass measuring jug is as good as new and cost me 30p, whereas to buy it new would have cost £3.75 (price from Tesco direct). It replaces the last of my very old plastic jugs and should last years, so I can justify this as not useless 'stuff'.

Jeans from Next that look like they have only been worn a few times cost me £1. These are exactly the jeans I would usually buy, so I know that a basic new pair would cost £20 from the shop. I also got another pair of M&S jeans for £2, though they aren't such a good fit. Jeans that fit are an essential to replace worn out jeans, but ones that aren't a good fit will just clutter up my wardrobe, so will go straight into a charity bag.

A plain t-shirt in very good condition from M&S cost me 67p, because I bought 3 t-shirts for £2. To buy it new would be around £6. (Two of the t-shirts didn't fit so really it cost me £2 for one t-shirt, which is still a saving.)

I also bought a T-shirt for my daughter for 50p as we had seen a similar one in New Look for £6.99. Essentials again for growing kids.

A thick warm jumper from Roxy cost me £1, although it was a bit grubby. New ones start at £50 on their website. Warm jumpers are another essential for winter.

A set of baskets (they look like a set but I bought them from 2 separate stalls) cost £2. How much would they be new? Maybe £15? I am just guessing here. Again these are replacing plastic tubs, and are not only more aesthetically pleasing, but made of natural materials.

Oh and a campervan mug cost 50p, but they cost £7 new. Hmmm......there is always an impulse buy! This kind of 'stuff' shouldn't be creeping in my home, even if it is secondhand.

Oh and how could I forget! I spent £1.50 on a cast iron hand mincer. Just the weight of the metal would be worth more than that. Although I can't really claim to have saved any money because I never would have bought it new. I'm sure I will get round to using it eventually. Plus it is made in England, so its a local product.

Not bad for a mornings shopping. I spent £15 in total if you include a few more items that didn't fit properly when I got home, 3 DVD's and the 50p admission fee. To buy just the items mentioned above new would have cost me £108 a saving of over £93. The most I have ever taken on a day selling my unwanted goods at the carboot is £80, though £50 to £60 is more normal. If it rains you risk taking a lot less money and coming home with a boot full of soggy items.

For me the Riot for Austerity target of a 90% reduction of 'stuff' based on money spent, is looking much more achievable than to not buy anything like Judith Levine did for a year. And if bargain hunting is something you enjoy, then find your nearest carboot sale for a frugal and eco-friendly shopping experience :-)