Thursday, March 15, 2007

While the cat's away... Having a NoFF week!

The author, thoroughly well wrapped and insulated, at his desk, preparing to write this blogWhile the cat's away, this mouse ain't having much fun: My wife Val, who's not in the least cat-like, is away for a few days, assisting at my son Mark Lynas's book launch. So it seemed entirely appropriate to conduct a 'climate' experiment on myself.

A winter week without fossil fuel: Yes, it's theoretically possible (see my earlier post Have a NoFF Day: NoFF = No Fossil Fuels) and I wanted to find out just how unpleasant it was. I was going to live in a post-carbon world for just 6 days. I turned the oil-fired central heating off at the main switch before Val even walked out of the door to catch her train on Monday, so keen was I. I also vowed that I would not indulge in heat from the wood-burning stove which is nominally carbon-neutral (though I have reservations about this since the trees I have planted around my farm won't sequester what I am burning now for many years to come). We would normally have the stove lit in the evenings at this chilly time of year.

Cold but not that cold: The very first night was quite a test. The skies cleared and the temperature plummeted to 0 degrees Celsius overnight. But I didn't die. I survived quite well by dint of wearing the same night-time clothes in bed (I normally sleep naked) that I wear on my mountain sojourns in Scotland: a base layer on my upper body and Polartec 100 'long johns' on the lower part. The old stone farmhouse has solid uninsulatable walls (something we're hoping to remedy by passive solar means) which buffer the maximum and miniumum outside temperatures so that, without heat input, the inside temperature reflects the average of day and night. This can mean that it's colder in the house during the day - and this has happened several times. Day temperatures did, once, shoot up to 14 Celsius leaving the kitchen at a chilly 10. So the average temperature in the house is probably around 10-11 Celsius.

Watching the telly: Not surprisingly, the body gets coldest when it's not active physically. During the part of the day when I'm outside on the farm, working physically (which includes excavating the foundations for the passive solar conservatory), I'm often hot and the sun shines from time to time. At night, when I relax late in the evening to watch a rented DVD (murder mysteries are my thing this week), I wrap up as warm as I can with as little skin exposed as possible. And with all my layers - the more the better - including a thick fleece and a 'body mitten' blanket thing, I find that I am reasonably comfortable.

Indulgences: No, not the papal sort; the physical sort:
  • I boil water - exactly the right amount, measured, for my tea and coffee
  • I take an 'instant' hot water electric shower each evening
  • I cook my simple meals on an electric hob
  • I have lights (low energy, of course) on where I need them
  • I use my laptop for several hours (I am an editor for and watch TV (LCD screen) for 2 h each day
  • I don't drive anywhere because there's plenty of food stored and growing on the farm: vegetables, I mean, not sheep. There's some apples still keeping from last year too

So you can see that my energy demands are extremely low by today's standards. Furthermore, we have reasonably green electricity (RSPB Energy).

T'was ever thus, not long ago: You only have to step back a generation or two to realise that people have always lived like this. Central heating, now completely taken for granted, is an innovation in my lifetime. As a schoolboy aged 10 in chilly Redcar-by-the-sea, I remember ice encrusting the inside of my bedroom window and the stone hotwater bottle my granny gave me to warm the bed. I also remember the misery of the outside toilet. In winter, you would crunch through the snow to get there. Just one small room was heated - a coal fire, and that only for the evening. This is not a complaint; merely an observation. In past times, everyone lived with the cold and dressed accordingly. The notion of heating an entire building was unknown. Not any more. That toughness and reslience has been lost and even cranks like me find it unpleasant to live with almost no energy inputs.

The cat returns: Val returns on Saturday night. The fire is laid ready for her. In fairness, I should add that she, too, has learned to dress appropriately and is to be seen wearing her red hat and thick fleece jacket, body mitten wrapped round her legs, as she does the farm accounts. She, like me, accepts what the IPCC and others are telling us about climate change and about our need to change. She, like me, is doing what she can.

Results: At school, we learned to present our results after conducting experiments (remember? Aim, Method, Results, Conclusions). I'm still continuing my experiment but the results are already clear: it's not fun living without energy. It can be done and may have to be done by many. So I conclude that we need to do our best to reduce energy consumption and to increase renewable energy capacity. We at Mur Crusto farm are well on the way to providing our home with solar heat and, when that's complete, intend to invest some of our savings in a reasonable size (say 5-10 kW) wind turbine. It will be grid-connected and so will earn us money just as effectively as money locked away in investments. And unlike investments which can all come crashing down overnight, our turbine will quietly generate energy and revenue for at least 20 years. Which is the safer option in this unsafe, unstable world which we humans have created? To see what I mean by 'unsafe and unstable', see my son's book: Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, launched tonight!


Derek said...

Really impressed to hear of someone walking the walk for a change!
I live much the same way, except that I'm on the computer about 10hrs/day, and it's 18 degrees C here in Dunedin, NZ. Not quite so hard at this time of year!

Of course, if you've got nice double-glazing, good insulation, solar-heated water etc, then you can have the best of both worlds :-)


Bry Lynas said...

Sadly, I have none of those resources you mentioned but I'm working on it. I'm currently building a large conservatory on the front of this old stone house, intended to pick up as much passive solar gain (it's south-facing) as possible. To find out how this progresses, check (farm blog) for news!