Thursday, December 21, 2006

Good news and bad news

Bry beginning the preparations for the new conservatory
First the good news: we got planning permission for the large conservatory that we wanted to build onto the front of the house. The intention was and is for passive solar heat capture. So now I'm starting the major excavations needed to prepare for the foundations and insulated floor. We're aiming for low U values throughout the structure so the floor and support wall will be well insulated. I try to do a couple of hours of levering and excavating of huge stones each day.

Now the bad news: Despite trying hard to get everything right so far as building regulations are concerned when constructing the eco-cottage, we've failed on several things in the final check. We are both quite angry and upset about this because we feel strongly that we just didn't get the support we needed, as self-builders, during construction. Let's hope matters are resolved satisfactorily when we meet up with the Building Control Manager in early January. Elsewhere in Europe, self build is common but in the UK, very few people have the courage and commitment to do it themselves. Part of the reason, I'm sure, is because 'the authorities' don't much like them and the system simply doesn't allow for non-professionals to receive kindly guidance so that they get the regulations bit right first time. In our case, you'd think that our cottage would be a shining beacon of effective renovation and proper construction for the low carbon build which we should all be aiming for. But nobody seems interested in our massive insulation and SAP rating of 107 (the maximum possible is 120). Shame!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Getting real... about pumps

Archimedes may have been ahead of his time. I'm just catching up!
It's taken some time for the light to dawn: pumping water with 12 volt batteries is an expensive waste-of-time. I've been through several pumps and lugged several generations of heavy lead-acid batteries across the field and finally accepted the blindingly obvious: a mains powered pump is a much easier and more reliable solution to keeping the rainwater tanks (for polytunnel drip irrigation) full. Originally I'd intended to power the whole system by wind or photovoltaics but the expense and complications of doing this meant that I never did it.

So I bit the bullet last week and unrolled a long coil of cable - the run is about 80 metres - and now have an almost-silent submersible pump which pumps the rainwater collection ponds in about one tenth the time of the 12 volt pump (which was twice the price), its predecessor. It also automatically switches itself off with a floating switch. Now I can relax in front of my widescreen telly...

Moral: Avoiding using grid electricity for 'green' reasons can often be a much bigger waste of resources, not to mention a very big waste of money.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Eco-farm project: conservatory and planning permission

I was wrong about the local planning department. Val, armed with drawings and a version of my previous post, went in to see the planners - prepared to do battle. She was disarmed almost immediately because the planning officer announced that he could see no reason why such an application would not be successful. Total surprise for us both, having encountered problems before.

Val has now got design plans from a conservatory manufacturere (Baltic wood from 'managed' forests, whatever that means) and in the next couple of days, we'll complete the application forms and submit them. Then there's a wait of 4-6 weeks before we get the answer.

We may, however, design and build the structure ourselves as we did for the holiday cottage conservatory. It all depends on the specs we want being satisfied and the overall strength of the structure: it has to be able to withstand the fierce gales we get here at this time of year.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Mur Crusto eco-farm project, Llangybi

These are the basic plans we intend to put before the local council. I expect objections from them and will post further as things proceed. The idea is that if we can retrofit this cold, damp farmhouse to make it energy-efficient, something similar can be done with almost all the other poorly-insulated housing stock throughout Britain (or anywhere else where winters are cool, energy used to be cheap and insulation was ignored).
  1. To be energy autonomous: an example of low-energy living with carbon emissions cut to a small fraction of ‘normal,’ based on retrofits to existing buildings (difficult but no alternative) rather than new build (easy).
  2. To be sustainable: growing quality food without high energy inputs and without pollution

Development so far

  • Successful organic veg- and fruit-growing box scheme provides wholesome fresh food to local people (around 35 families), with zero ‘food miles’Sheep wool insulation in the walls of the conversion
  • Barn conversion to holiday eco-cottage completed in 2006 by ourselves and now successfully attracting regular visitors. Exceptional attention to insulation (see image, sheeps’ wool) and use of renewable electric power (from Ecotricity) means that this building has a SAP rating of 107 (max. possible is 120) and zero carbon footprint. Heating is electric underfloor and is only needed in the coldest weather. Top-up heating is by efficient log-burner supplied with wood from farm: carbon neutral. Double-glazed conservatory provides major solar gains for whole building.
  • Minimsed carbon emissions from Mur Crusto house by universal use of low energy bulbs, pipe lagging, insulation where possible and minimal use of central heating after installing new efficient boiler

Planned development

It is effectively impossible to insulate existing farmhouse because of its thick stone wall construction. It cannot be insulated on the inside because the rooms are already small and dark. Internal dry-lining would worsen this and require total interior demolition. , To be effective, external insulation cladding would require raising the entire roof and re-slating. Insulation in roof spaces already 300mm rock wool but much of the roof is inaccessible because of dormer window construction. Result: building is still a major source of carbon emissions from central heating oil with SAP probably below 30. It is also permanently cold. At present, we produce a minimum of 2.5 tonnes of CO2 per year with the oil-fired heating, run as little as possible. Main heat source is wood-burner (carbon-neutral) and well-insulated bodies. i.e. we wrap up well and try not to shiver when other people would just switch on the heating!

Windsave turbines
Solutions - in order of priority and dependant on our resources
1. Installation of double-glazed (e-glass) solar passive/semi-active heat collector/conservatory along south-facing front of house to cut down heat loss through walls and induct solar gains with controlled fans into house interior (using thermal mass of thick walls to store heat)
2. Installation of one or more Windsave 1kW turbines, grid-connected. Electricity savings such that one turbine should pay for itself in 5 years
3. micro CHP (combined heat and power, image right) installation instead of existing oil boiler. Savings of 1.5 tonnes/y of CO2 emissions normal for such installation
4. photovoltaic array, grid-connected, on south-facing and sloping roof of modern barn (consultants: Dulas Ltd, Machynlleth)

Final result
An energy-neutral sustainable farm, probably the first of its kind in Wales. Watch this space...

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Feeling the heat in 'rainy' Wales

Yesterday, the temperature here exceeded those in the Mediterranean where you expect mid-30s Celsius at this time of year. In the polytunnel, the thermometer almost went off-scale as it reached 44 degrees C, a record. Unlike the Mediterranean countries, we still have plenty of water and so can irrigate. In fact, I went out during the stifling hot day at least 5 times to turn on the sprinklers (which I rarely use, preferring the far more economical drip system installed under the soil) for a few minutes at a time, just to keep the temperatures bearable for the plants.

This picture shows one of the rain water collection ponds outside the polytunnel. At present, they're pumped dry since there's been no rain.

Outside, I have to water the veg plots every night, each sector in succession. There hasn't been any serious rain for many weeks and the Met Office is not projecting any in the coming weeks, so far as I can see.

So we're having the hottest and driest summer since (my) records began... 6 years ago. That may mean nothing in climate change terms but it does make you think. And it reminds me once again how much easier it is to grow veg here than it was in Mallorca, where I used to attempt to farm on a small scale for several years. There, we had to rely for all our water on an old well which in times past supplied plenty of water, but all our rich neighbours had put down tubewells to far greater depths than our well's modest 8 metres and depleted the local water table to keep their vast lawns green and swimming pools full. Here in Wales, we have metered mains water which is unlikely to run dry... and, after Mallorca, I always appreciate the rain when it does come!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

War on the atmosphere: military aircraft emissions

Low-flying aircraft above our polytunnel Insult to injury: George Monbiot's latest piece on aircraft emissions prompts this post; something I've been considering for some time. It is, in turn, prompted by the daily screech and roar of military aircraft over this 'peaceful' country haven in north Wales. Quite apart from any other considerations, this daily air and noise pollution is a continual affront to our attempts to live here as sustainably as possible. With one economical car (65mpg average and 116 grams/kilometre CO2 output), a wood-burner, low-energy lights, insulation and central heating used sparingly, our lifestyle is as low carbon as you can reasonably get in the carbon-fuel-dependent UK. Probably these aircraft burn up what we use in a year in just a couple of hours... but I don't know. Who does?... Or is it secret?

Aircraft emissions and the atmosphere: Okay, here's the issue: we know aircraft emissions are really bad for the environment, especially those at high altitude. Just how much fuel do the airforces of the world squander on training flights (or war games for big boys and their very expensive toys as I'm uncharitably inclined to regard them after the tenth jet in twenty minutes)? What proportion of total aircraft emissions do they represent? I have no idea but I'll bet it's more than you might think. No doubt it's a closely-guarded military secret. And what's it all for? That gross euphemism 'defence' (Orwell warned of this) is bandied about by politicians everywhere. But what's the point of it all (and upgrading nuclear 'deterrents' come to that)? In what way are these scary warplanes and their undoubtedly skilled pilots increasing our security in Britain? Consider little Costa Rica appropriately about the size of Wales: This little country doesn't have an airforce or any military force. The country is still there... and it has land borders with its neighbours making invasion easy, unlike seabound Britain.

Is war more important than climate? The biggest problem facing the planet now is climate change. Most of us, including politicians, would agree with that. So who is about to attack the UK which requires a large active fuel-burning airforce to repel? Terrorists? But everyone knows that terrorists' weapons are suicide bombers and cars packed with explosives. They don't use aircraft - except as flying bombs, one infamous day, in 2001. So why must we put up with this squandering of limited resources on things like military aircraft and the resultant pollution which endangers everyone, not to mention useless nuclear weaponry? Or is there another agenda we ordinary folk don't hear about, like invading Iran - as if the disaster of the US/UK invasion of Iraq wasn't lesson enough? Or maye it's just successive UK governments' desire to have access to the 'top tables' with their American friends, perpetuating the absurd post-colonial notion of 'punching above our weight' and the so-called 'special relationship' which must be nurtured at all costs? That's a lot of questions but how can I get some answers? I have asked my MP to enquire and he is doing so.

Lives are at stake here.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Every little helps: alternative energy sources

Old-fashioned wind pump
The problem with alternative energy sources is that they're either periodic (like tides or solar) or unreliable (like wind). The one exception is hydropower.

But isn't this the biggest obstacle to the wholesale adoption of renewables in the near future?

Well that was how I thought until my brother-in-law pointed out that every unit of renewable enery produced is a unit of fossil-fuelled energy saved. Blindingly obvious, of course, but I hadn't quite got into thinking that way. I had been commenting that all renewable generators required a battery or back-up system which was expensive and likely to depend on fossil fuels - or nuclear power. None of this alters the basic premise that a unit of energy produced (by, e.g., the turbine on your roof) is a unit which doesn't need fossil fuel to make. I repeat myself, I know, but then this is so fundamental, it needs to be repeated. And the argument about back-up sources really isn't very critical since the fossil-fuelled kit (power stations) already exists. Better weather forecasts mean that extra capacity needs can be anticipated well in advance so that boilers and turbines - not something you can swtich on and off at will - can be started. The aim, after all, is not to cease burning all fossil fuels, but to reduce their use by 60-80% to help stabilise the climate.

What's more, the larger the transmission grid (I know there are losses here), the more it can be used as a 'battery'. Gales in Scotland mean surplus generation for that part of the country which can be 'exported', via the grid, to areas of calm. Indeed, such grids cross national boundaries (like the connection between France and the UK) which enlarges the scope of renewables even further. Perhaps it would be feasible for large scale solar electricity to be produced in hot deserts like the Sahara, at the same time giving those countries a new exportable commodity.

Like I say, every little helps...

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Advice to a daughter (with kids) in a warming world

"As the temperature starts to rise abnormally because of human activity, feedback mechanisms will turn harmful in their effect, and put the situation beyond our control." James Lovelock, Independent, 16 January 2006.

Alsaskan glacier, taken by my father. Alaska is warming fast!I'd sent my daughter the above link which describes the grim future which is likely for people in a warming world. She, obviously, is most concerned about her own two children's future. This was my response to her worried reply.

Lovelock's gloomy prediction is depresssing, of course, but I was of the generation which grew up with the serious threat of nuclear armageddon. And we all just carried on doing the things ordinary people do, hoping that matters would improve. They did. I think Lovelock's is very much the worst case scenario and he may be wrong about irreversibility having been reached already. We have to assume that we still have time and do our damndest to kick the politicians into some serious action. Obviously, actions begin at home, but we need much more than this. It's all very well me turning the heating off and refusing to fly but it influences hardly anyone. What is needed is carbon rationing right now, internationally. How can we make the politicians do it?
(For details of how carbon rationing might work, try this guide:

It's not just apathy: We had a friend and his wife for a meal recently. Nice pair, normal people, quite aware... and they're about to fly off to Australia for a holiday for 5 weeks. Then he's off skiing. He knows the basic issues but somehow, like almost everyone, he must feel that what he does makes no difference and doesn't really believe warming is happening so he might as well enjoy life. How can we tackle this understandable view?

Linked in to all this is the staggering increase in global population. When I was born (1946), there were about 2350 million people. It's now almost 6.5 billion.

As for Amy and Thomas' future, I think low-key thoughtful preparation for a more difficult world would be a sensible option. You're better placed than many to become moderately able to grow your own food and fuel. Could you also influence their school to teach more in the way of self reliance and alternatives to oil-based lifestyles? Please don't despair: there's plenty to live for and we all have to die of something!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Sad remains

This is all that remains of the glacier below El Tallon (3130 metres) in the Pyrennees. It was gushing meltwater when I examined it close up in the evening in June 2005. Another few hot summers and it'll be gone. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Trapped: it's the planet, stupid!

All is not well with our planet as we are regularly reminded by a string of reports, the latest being the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. And the fault is ours. Though politicians make speeches paying lip service to the environment, business continues as usual. Coal is mined; forests are burned; people still fly off on holidays; the planet warms. So why can’t we free ourselves from this relentless cycle of resource overuse? Are we locked in to an economic system, depending as it does on exploitation, even though we know it’s a system that’s bound to come tumbling down (maybe taking most of us with it)? Are we trapped into pillaging of the planet’s life support systems even though we know it can’t go on?

Even now, many countries behave as if they were not all connected to and dependent on the biosphere, a lesson still not understood − particularly by nationalists. The universal excuse for doing nothing is always ‘the economy’.

So what’s being done? Not much. What are the stumbling blocks: one, ironically, is democracy because it ensures that nothing unpopular can be done; worse is outright denial that there’s a problem at all. Yet there is a way forward, difficult but possible. Otherwise we’re back to the dilemma we all face: the planet’s cry for help isn’t getting through. It seems we really are trapped.