December 2008


In the middle of this dire economic crash, with peak-oil and climate change suggesting that the “best” is now behind us and that a long, slow (or short, quick) decline is what we face, a wonderful movement is being reborn. It shoots can be seen everywhere – in the flowering of Transition Towns across Britain, in the ever-growing waiting lists for allotments that were unwanted just a few years ago, local farmer’s markets sprouting in every town centre, and proposals for 2,012 gardens clinging to London’s rooves. It’s even discussed in the Guardian’s forecasts for 2009. Whatever your particular name for it, it seems that we are being shocked out of our ongoing “Greed is Good” mentality to ” The Good Life is Better”.

But what is this Good Life? I suspect everybody has their own. It depends on what has brought you to this point: increasing prices for petrol, gas, electricity and food? unemployment or financial uncertainty? unease at the origin and safety of your family’s food? concern over your environmental footprint? or a belief in the impending energy shortages that peak oil will bring? Whatever your overall direction or philosophy, frugality, self-sufficiency, and the rediscovery of community seem to be some common themes.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all of this, but when it all gets a little too interesting I like to take a step back and think “Isn’t this one of the most exciting times to be alive – to have a chance to shape a future for our children at this pivotal period in our history.”

Bring on an interesting year decade …

I’d been planning to put together a list of aims and achievements since I talked about it back in August. In the great pause between Christmas and New Year it seems appropriate to finally get around to it! So here is my quick brain dump. I’ll expand on this as I achieve some of them:

Food

  • Build up a store of 1 year’s supply of food that we eat. Try to ensure that we are storing the ingredients for food that won’t keep – e.g. store UHT milk to make short-shelf-life dairy products as required, ingredients for bread etc.
    • Work out what we eat in a year
    • DONE! learn to bake bread from base ingredients
    • learn to bake good, light, everyday bread!
    • learn to make basic pastas
    • learn to make and wax hard cheese – cheddar, parmesan and more
    • learn to make soft cheeses that we use – feta (soft and hard), mozzarella,
    • learn to make other dairy products that we use – sour cream, yoghurt
    • learn to preserve and store fresh food that we grow, or that is only seasonally available locally.
    • learn to make jam
  • Find a network of  local producers and suppliers, and use them as much as possible.
    • reduce our dependance on supermarkets to less than 50% of essential food
      • reduce our dependance on supermarkets to less than 10% of essential food
    • reduce our dependance on non-local food – less than 50% of essential food
      • reduce our dependance on non-local food – less than 10% of essential food
        • remove our dependance on non-local food – no essential food from further away than 100 miles, 90% within 50 miles

 Waste

  • get milk (and juice if possible) delivered in reusable bottles
  • shop for a month with no plastic bags
  • compost all kitchen scraps, so that all waste from the house is “dry” and doesn’t need plastic bags
  • halve the packaging we use in year 1
    • reduce it by 10% every year
  • Halve our general refuse in year 1
    • reduce it by 10% every year thereafter
  • put in a compost toilet
  • put in a greywater recycling sytem for all water from bath, shower, washbasin, washing machine

Growing our own food

  • setup our aquaponics system
    • harvest fish from our aquaponics system
      • breed our own fish, thereby closing the cycle
  • harvest winter vegetables from our own plot
  • get an allotment
  • grow 50% of our own fruit and vegetable requirements
    • grow 80% of our own essential fruit and vegetables
  • keep chickens for eggs

 Energy

  • work out how much electricity we use, and try to devise a plan to provide that by renewable means
  • reduce our fossil fuel use by 10% a year
  • store at least a year’s supply of firewood
  • have a heating/hot water system that will work with at least two different fuel sources
  • have a cooking system that will work with at least two different fuel sources
  • don’t buy or use a tumble dryer
  • retire our powered mower
  • provide all our essential power needs on-site, for at least a month
  • provide 50% of non-essential power needs on site

General Resilience

  • provide 100% of essential water requirements on-site for 3 months
  • provide 50% of all water requirements for 3 months.
  • “live” within a bikeable radius (public transport if necessary)
  • learn to sharpen tools

Community

  • Join local allotment / gardening groups
  • Get involved in Manchester FOE
  • Go to Green Drinks
  • Team up with other local growers to ensure that we can have some “cover” if we ever go on holiday.

pv_bp7seriesIt seems that cheaper solar panels are on the way in 2009. I’d heard this earlier in the year with regard to new Chinese suppliers coming onstream, but now the forecast drop in prices is accelerating as a result of drop-off in demand from Spain and Germany.

By the end of 2009 average prices for panels for new installation contracts will collapse to the $2.50 to $2.75 per watt range, down from the current level of $4.20 per watt. The overall average price for the year will be $3.10 per watt, Wicht predicted.

 I’ve just done my quick survey of available Photovoltaic Panels, and the lowest price I’ve found is £4.18 /Watt – so it looks like we’ve got a little way to go before we get down to $2.50/Watt!

Supplier Manufacturer Watts £ inc VAT £/Watt
Wind and Sun BP – 3 Series 160 669.3 4.18
Wind and Sun BP – 3 series 170 727.95 4.28
Marlec BP – 3 Series 125 536 4.29
Marlec BP – 3 Series 135 579 4.29
Wind and Sun BP – 4 Series 175 772.8 4.42
Marlec BP – 3 Series 80 358 4.48
Unlimited Power KYOCERA 200 920 4.60
Unlimited Power SunPower 90 471.5 5.24
Unlimited Power Sanyo 215 1331 6.19

The downside? Less investment in the industry is likely to result. This, in combination with the lower investement we’re seeing in Oil Exploration & Production as a result of the drop in Oil Prices could have some serious implications for ongoing energy security.

So make sure you get your panels – and then go next door and make sure they’re putting some up too!

Rotaire Dryline

Rotaire Dryline

Tumble Driers are a contentious item in the UK green movement – just look at all the debate raging over at Bean Sprouts. And the fact is, that if you don’t have one, but dry inside on radiators, then you’re still going to be using a lot of extra energy to dry your clothes – have a look at the figures here. Now most of the time drying outside in the UK is an impossibility – it’s rainy or even just generally damp. So a bright spark has come up with the wonderful device in the picture – it’s a waterproof cover for a rotary airer. It means that your clothes will dry even on a damp Manchester day – the nets down the side allow the wind through, but prevent the rain being blown onto the clothes.  I’ll certainly try one of these rather than buying a tumble dryer (how the hell would I power a tumble dryer with my Post-Peak-Oil Solar PV 🙂  anyway).

You can get them online from Rotaire from £30.

I have often remembered the chicken broth my mother used to make when I was a child. In those days of frugality, making a broth was the best way to ensure that full use was got out of a chicken – that every last morsel of meat was gleaned off the bones and every ounce of goodness was extracted from the carcass, and was put to delicious use. And yes, it was delicious!

 Of course, in the fast-paced lives that we so often live in our young adulthood, making broth never seemed to be worth the bother. But my husband has recently been ‘educating’ me on the expected ravages that will descend upon the world post-peak-oil, and how we will need to become much less wasteful with our food. Plus, I thought, my two-year-old daughter will love it. So, despite the risk of irretrievably entrenching myself into the stereotyped stay-at-home mum rôle, I decided this evening to have a go.

 So here’s a rough guide to how to make it: 

  • Put the chicken carcass into a pan
  • Add an onion, cut into eighths
  • Cover with water and bring to the boil
  • Season with salt and pepper and a good shake of mixed herbs
  • Boil for 3-4 hours until the carcass has fallen apart and all the meat dropped off the bones
  • Extract the bones (that’s the real fiddly part. There are no short-cuts to getting into it with your fingers)

 If you want, you can make a proper meal by adding chopped vegetables towards the end of the cooking time, but my mother’s version was always unadulterated.

 As I write, the wonderful aromas of chicken and onions are filling the house. The hard part is waiting for all that cooking time before you can eat the soup!

 I may try amending the recipe to give it a more modern, cosmopolitan flavour in the form of Asian-style chicken noodle soup (I’m sure that the addition of noodles alone will not be sufficient!). Perhaps a further post will be necessary. Must go now – tasting to do!

 PS – Of course! Here’s how chicken broth fits into our post-peak-oil lives. Picture our (as yet hypothetical) wood-burning stove, blazing away all day in the winter to heat our rooms, with a pot of broth simmering away on top…

Just a short post to flag an article on Mexico reaching Peak Oil production and ceasing to be an oil exporting economy by the end of 2009. This has major implications for the stability of Mexico’s economy – where’s it going to get those export dollars from now? And also for US energy security as the USA currently imports 1.3 million barrels a day from Mexico (alomst as many as the 1.4 million it gets from Saudi Arabia).

The article also discusses International Energy Agency forecasts of 9% yearly oil depletion – that’s hard to picture on a global scale, but just try to work out how you’re going to get by with 10% less energy each year. Think about how your life would look if you had to drive 10% less miles each and every year, and had to heat your house with 10% less energy each and every year.

Focusses the mind a little doesn’t it.

UnderFloor Heating- MysonAssuming we’re not going to be at the point of only heating one room anytime soon, how do we heat the whole house? Traditionally I’d have said easy – just radiators. The hot water can come from our wood-fired range, topped up with Solar hot water  and our emergency Gas boiler. But I’ve always had a hankering for underfloor heating, so I thought I’d have a look and see whether it was possible , and economically sensible.

The efficiency figures are impressive – “wet” underfloor heating is 30% more efficient than radiators (you can also get electric underfloor heating but it is 30-40% more expensive to run than the hot water – “wet” – systems, so we won’t be considering those).

Wet systems work by running warm water through a network of pipes either under the floor or under the floor covering. The water only has to be about 50C, so it’s much easier to run with renewable sources than radiators are. You’ll also get back all the wall space usually dedicated to radiators, and benefit from not having your heating source trapped behind a sofa or right underneath a window.

I’ve always thought it’d be something you’d only fit if you were building new or replacing all the floors, but there are now systems that will fit on top of your existing floor, under your floor covering. This makes fitting them to an existing house a much more manageable proposition. You just need to ensure that suspended ground floors are insulated and that you don’t have too insulating a floor covering – make sure it is less than 1.5 tog.

How much will it cost? If you’re doing a whole house it’ll probably come in at between £12-16/sqm – about the price of a decent carpet, ro about the same price as a radiator system. So you probably wouldn’t do it to replace a perfectly good central heating system, but if you need all-new heating it should definitely be considered. They should last 25-50 years so it’ll be a good investment!

Other resources

  • Channel4 – a great discussion of all the options and issues. 
  • Myson – Manufacturer, will lots of great technical information on what’s possible, prices etc. Check out their great Technical Guide.
  • Polypipe – Manufacturer, includes details of their Overlay low-profile over-floor system.
  • SelfBuildABC.co.uk – great article on all the issues.
  • Borders Underfloor Heating – a supplier with diagrams of all the fitting methods for each floor type.

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