That’s enough oil – I’m going to make my own energy from now on

March 18, 2007

I live in Derbyshire in a modest stone farmhouse on a rocky, south-facing, south-sloping property extending to about sixteen acres of pasture and about five acres of woodland. It has for centuries been called The Spout because there is a copious and constant spring on the land. There is a reed bed below my septic tank. I compost much of my rubbish. In water and waste we are already self-sufficient.Over a few glasses of wine with my electricity-boffin friend Andrew last Sunday, I decided to aim next — with his help — for self-sufficiency in the property’s energy use. Why? Because I think we actually could. It won’t be cheap; it won’t — yet — make economic sense. It won’t be something most Times readers could copy. Nor is it really my response to global warming: on this I’m still ambivalent about the science.

But I’m sure the world will run out of fossil fuels; and there’s a strong argument, at least, that their combustion may be hurting us; and I’m curious to explore the limits of what we can do to help. Where better to start than in my own life, my own lucky if atypical circumstances?

If the decision was driven by more by curiosity than by financial realism, still a report published this week by Chatham House encouraged me to think there is a longer-term commercial logic, if not for me, then for the market in which we are each one speck.

I must take care not to distort the conclusions of John V. Mitchell’s A New Era for Oil Prices, which you can find at www.chathamhouse.org.uk. Mitchell, who is Associate Fellow of the Energy, Environment and Development programme at Chatham House (an independent body), advances no moral imperative for individuals or governments. Indeed it is rather the point of his paper that sermonising and exhortation may prove irrelevant: what will shape the changing future of the world’s energy use will be price.

Though argued in detail and at length, and after painstaking scrutiny of oil and energy markets, Mr Mitchell’s case is simple. It is that oil, worldwide, is signing its own death warrant by pricing itself out of the market; that high oil prices are set to continue; that they are losing their famous and ancient power to cause economic recession; that in the short term high oil prices are contributing to more efficient use of current technology; and that in the longer term they are energising moves toward sustainable energy technology.

Not all of Mr Mitchell’s argument will be music to the green energy movement’s ears. An immediate and prime beneficiary of the shift away from reliance on oil, he says, will be gas. But it is the underlying dynamic of his case which is heartening to a Cameroon Conservative like me, who believes the State can plan, but the market must deliver, a shift towards sustainable energy. If Mr Mitchell is right, then, just like reliance on oil, reliance on gas can be shifted by the simple expedient of price, powerfully augmented by another entirely businesslike consideration: doubt about security of supply. In the face of these pressures (Mr Mitchell says) energy monoliths can crack, and oil is cracking. His paper deals at length with the range of power sources that as a consequence is emerging — particularly biofuels.

Biofuels are part of my own plan, though not in the form of Brazilian ethanol that the report describes. I had intended, in old age, to replace my Raeburn multifuel cooker and water heater (which burns wood and coal) with an oil-burning stove. The first part of my response is to scrap this idea, keep the multifuel burner and gradually reduce my reliance on coal by switching to wood. I have already planted 160 trees in protective cages in the pasture below the house. Now I plan to harvest the crop of fallen Scots pine branches, which every winter gale brings down in the sizeable wood above the house, replanting where necessary; and to be more systematic about storing and drying the stacks of wood.

Item 2, we hope, will be geothermal power. By this we do not mean using the hot rocks in the Earth’s interior (though there are thermal springs in nearby Buxton so, who knows, this may one day prove possible) but using the residual warmth in soil and rock heated every day by the sun. A circuit of pipes would be buried in my land, about five feet down. Liquid pumped around the network is warmed (though only gently) by the land.

This heat is extracted by a “heat pump”, the same process by which a refrigerator removes heat from its interior and dumps and disperses it through the warm metal radiator at the back. Fridges and air-conditioners are really heat pumps, but they dump the warmth and keep the cold. Our heat pump will do the reverse: keep the warmth and dump the cold. This uses energy, of course, but delivers much more than it uses.

The proposed heat pump should provide a copious supply of lukewarm water. The challenge is to devise ways of putting this to practical domestic use: underfloor heating is the obvious one, but our house is ill-adapted to this. Taking the chill off water which is then warmed further by conventional means is probably another.

Item 3 will be solar panels: not the water radiators on the roof that are already being widely marketed (none too scrupulously by some contractors), but black panels of photovoltaic cells, which generate electricity. My sister, her husband and I have tried a large one of these at l’Avenc, an ancient house we are restoring in Catalonia, and it has proved a surprising success. Here in Derbyshire we must decide whether to go for a roof-mounted or land-mounted system, and I’m planting holly bushes on a south-facing slope as a possible screen.

Readers of this column will take differing views of item 4: a small wind turbine. Being on a hillside, the property is exposed to stiff northwesterly winds for much of the winter and a turbine with (say) a 4ft or 5ft blade could easily be sited at the neck of a funnel of yew trees already in place — again, minimising visual impact.

I love wind turbines. I love their elegant functionality. I love the gentle whoosh they make, like a giant bird’s wings. I love the idea of free energy. I lived for many months near two huge wind turbines on the sub-Antarctic island where I wintered five years ago, and saw them as friends. Mine will deliver peak power exactly when we need it at The Spout, on winter nights; but because renewable energy sources often deliver power in an unreliably fluctuating way, we may need a battery room (as we have at l’Avenc) and an inverter to convert DC into the AC a household needs. Alternatively we could (under existing arrangements) sell surplus power back into the national grid, and buy power when we are short. Or charge up an electric car.

Politicians love to talk about this sort of thing, but I am encouraged to action by David Cameron’s hopes of experimenting with a wind turbine himself. Not least among my aims is to find out how wide is the gap between political rhetoric and administrative reality. Will planning permission be needed? What will be the attitude of the Peak District National Park, our planning authority at The Spout?

I very well know that when it comes to experiments with “green” energy, few are as lucky as me. Many readers will lack the space, the land or the resources to try what I plan. But someone has to start somewhere, and some of the lessons we learn may be useful more widely. With your forbearance I shall be writing again about this. If David Cameron and Chatham House are right, it is time in our imaginations to start cutting the psychological ties with oil.

Matthew Parris

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/matthew_parris/article613524.ece

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