Monday, January 3, 2011

Our house as an ecosystem

Up until about two and a half years ago we lived in southern Spain. We bought an old farm house and tried to live sustainably. Unfortunately we were hit by the downturn and ended up taking paid work in Denmark. Who knows, we might return one day. Here's a chapter from a book I have written that deals with that period.

Greenpeace was founded when I was about an inch long and happily growing inside my mother's womb, blissfully unaware of the perils of the world I was yet to be born into. When I finally emerged in 1971, if I'd been paying attention I'd have noticed that the world was in turmoil. The Vietnam War was at it's height and just a few days before I popped out half a million Americans marched to demand its end. Around the same time a new group called Friends of the Earth was also arising out of a growing awareness that the species I had just been born into was wrecking the planet. Oil prices were sky high, by the standards of the day, and it wouldn't be long before shocks in its supply made people aware for the first time that the human world we had created ran on oil.

Many men had long hair and beards around this time but my father certainly didn't. Back then Britain still had a substantial manufacturing base and my father spent his working life building cars and trains. It's difficult to imagine anyone less like a hippie than my father, but nevertheless the energy conserving ethos of the age was instilled in him and I grew up in a household where we had central heating but it was rarely turned on. During the coldest months of winter we would wear woolly jumpers, and sometimes even gloves, and not being able to see your breath meant that it must be summer. And it wasn't just my father who was like that, his generation was the last one to remember the rationing of the war and the long decades of stagnation and deprivation that followed. Because of this collective memory, and in response to the oil shocks that hit the 1970s, a movement grew up that called itself the appropriate technology movement. Their aim was as simple and sensible as it was laudable: to stop focusing on quick but expensive technological fixes to the oil crisis and develop simple and more cost effective ways to ensure everyone had enough energy to meet their needs.

In intellectual and activist circles the movement was a big success. People rushed to sign up for courses in composting, insulation and animal husbandry. Others built their own wind turbines and solar heaters. The movement went mainstream and even Jimmy Carter, the president of the United States, installed solar panels on the White House. In Britain a sitcom, The Good Life, about a couple who turned their suburban London home into a smallholding and shocked the neighbours, was watched by millions of people every week. I grew up thinking it was normal for people to help birth lambs in their bathrooms.

But then something happened to put a stop to all this fun. The oil price spikes of the 1970s had been caused by supply problems in the Middle East, especially Iran, but by the end of the decade these problems were retreating in the rear view mirror. Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain and had the incredible good political fortune to coincide her ascendency with the discovery of massive oil deposits in the North Sea. Across the Pond, her partner in crime Ronald Reagan opened up all the spindles on every oil platform he had influence over and the age of cheap oil was upon us. This new era was born on a gusher, and all of a sudden nobody was watching The Good Life, they turned over to watch Dallas instead. The antics of rich and greedy oil barons like J.R. Ewing were far more compelling than watching Richard Briers wrestle with the ethical dilemma of killing a chicken for dinner. The raison d'etre of the appropriate technology movement vanished in a puff of black oily smoke and its acolytes were chased from public view, their ideas banished to the collective Siberia of the mind.

To make matters worse, around my eighteenth birthday the economist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed 'the end of history', meaning that the industrial western model of a consumerist democracy had trumped all other forms of social and economic organisation. Triumphalist free marketeers blew their trumpets from Kuala Lumpur to Berlin heralding a future of endless consumerism and corporate dominance. Mankind had reached an evolutionary pinnacle and idealism had no further part to play, so the wisdom went. I was at a loss. Cheap and plentiful oil had killed the Zeitgeist I had been raised with.

Until now. I stood in front of my house and wondered what I could do with it. In ring binders on my desk I had printed out thousands of sheets of scanned pages from how-to manuals typed out crookedly on old typewriters in the days before citizens had been re-branded as consumers. These were the Dead Sea Scrolls of the appropriate tech movement, abandoned in haste and left lying all but forgotten in dusty corners of public libraries and old boxes stored in the attics of the formerly idealistic.

The basic thing to recognise, I read, was that our home and the land it was on was an ecosystem. And like any ecosystem it was defined by its energy flows and materials. The material bit was easy to figure out as you could see it: walls, doors, trees, soil, lazy cats and the numerous buzzing bees, to name but a few aspects. And material things, if you were clever about managing them, went around in cycles. That was the whole art of permaculture, a contraction of permanent and agriculture: the way to use natural systems to provide yourself with food, wood etc., without diminishing the system. If I wanted any advice on this we were lucky to have one the founders of the philosophy, Patrick Whitefield, as one of our neighbours. Orgiva is that kind of place.

No less of a challenge though was the concept of recognising and harnessing the ambient energy without having to rely on dirty fossil fuels. Although I hadn't been aware of it at the time, the same year we moved into our house, 2006, was also the year of peak oil, according to the International Energy Agency. Whole books have been written about peak oil, and many more will be, but in a nutshell it is the moment when half of the world's reachable fossil fuel reserves have been exploited. 2006 was this moment and henceforth it will be rising demand and diminishing supply, meaning that price rises of a steepness we have never seen before are inevitable.

The harsh glare of the Andaluz sun seemed a most obvious source of energy. I learned that the sun was most readily available for two types of energy; to produce electricity using solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, and to use its rays to heat water in a tank. It seemed crazy that the roads of Andalucia were thick with trucks carrying butane gas bottles - most of it originating in Algeria from where it is shipped to Spain - when the sun could heat up water easily and for no charge. I had no idea how much a solar water heater might cost, but guessed at a couple of hundred euros. I was wrong. The figure was several times that. I couldn’t see how, what I assumed to be a very basic system could cost so much.

Further research turned up some interesting DIY projects that would cost almost nothing. Old radiators, cleaned out and painted black, could be installed easily as could old decommissioned boilers placed on the roof and painted with some light absorbing paint. Indeed, David and Aspen had made a perfectly functional and stylish shower block with nothing but coils of regular black plastic irrigation tubes on the roof. The possibilities extended in every direction with a bit of imagination.

Turning to PV, the options were far more complex. Our cortijo already had a solar system installed, albeit a basic one. A single Franco era panel sat on the roof generating enough power for a couple of feeble light bulbs. The old man we had bought the house off couldn’t see why we should want any more than this. A family of tailless geckos had made their home in the inverter box on the wall and a single truck battery bubbled and hissed away in the corner of what was to be Sofia's nursery. Our house needed to be brought into the 21st century.

The problem was I had virtually no understanding of electricity. I knew it could electrocute you if you stuck your finger in a light bulb fitting and I knew it was comprised of electrons that whizzed around violently banging into other particles. I bought a book that explained PV and electricity to its readers as if it were a kindergarten story. Amps were analogous to packs of huskies pulling sledges and electrical resistance was something to do with sticky snow. It was at my level.

Fully clued up, so I thought, I went off to talk to a solar installer about huskies and sledges and everything else I had learned. The professional engineer from Germany seemed a little puzzled at first but soon saw I was in need of help. He noted down everything that we might want to run in the house, when we might want to use it (e.g. TV and computers at night, sewing machine and iron in the day) and went off to do some calculations. When I next saw him he told me exactly what PV system we needed and where we could get hold of it. It was less painful than I had previously imagined.

Just to be sure I asked another expert and was told something completely different. Another one still came up with a third choice substantially different to the other two. I attempted some of the calculations myself but soon gave up. The task was proving more frustrating than I had anticipated. Surely it couldn't be that difficult? I spent several weeks in this state and a kind of solar paralysis came over me. I didn’t like to talk about our 'electricity situation' because I knew that whoever I mentioned it to would tell me something contrary to the prevailing latest advice. My own calculations were equally as confusing. Scraps of paper littered the dining room table with things written on them like '9 * lghtblbs * 4.5 hrs (avg) + TV (200w?) + 1hr wshng mchn (gen bckup?) = (assmg 8hrs fll sun frm 4 pnls 110w each)…etc'. Worryingly, whenever I mentioned sacrifice to my wife she raised a concerned eyebrow and said things like “Remember we’ve got children,” or “Perhaps we should get a grid connection as, you know, backup.” I was adamant about the grid connection. Plans were afoot to bring the grid to our patch of hillside – which seemed ridiculous to me seeing as everyone was living perfectly fine without it.

And then I got a phone call from someone who said he could help me. I arranged a meeting down on the coast and two weeks later was the proud owner of a solar system put together by an enthusiast and imported from the four corners of the globe. The panels came from Japan, the batteries (monster ones weighing over a hundred kilos each) from Canada, the inverter (the box that sits on the wall and converts battery energy to useful electricity) from Switzerland and the other parts from the UK.

The six panels themselves were high powered ones that sat in two arrays of three on our roof and the inverter was a meaty 4,500 watts – enough to power all the mod cons found in a regular grid-connected house. For backup I bought a petrol powered generator for times when perhaps several consecutive cloudy days have depleted the batteries or we were running every single appliance continuously. In these instances the backup generator would switch on automatically when the inverter detected a low level of battery power without even a blip in the supply. The supply itself was pure sine wave, which meant there would be no annoying hum on audio and video equipment, as could happen with non-sine wave inverters.

The total cost of our ‘overkill’ system was around €12,000. This came out as average when compared with other estimates we had been given, which ranged from €4,000 (a complete DIY job) to €22,000 (a rip off). Given that we would have had to pay €8,000 for a connection to the grid this meant that we had spent an extra €4,000 – with the added bonus that all electricity would be free and we knew that we would be generating very low levels of CO2 (although not zero when one took into consideration the production of the materials and the long distance shipping).

Next on the list of considerations was internal heating. No heating existed apart from a large open fireplace and a blackened hearth in the kitchen. But before considering what type of heating to install I learned that the best way to think about things was to start by asking what kind of temperature would be acceptable and working backwards from that. This might have sounded like a simple question but it may well be the cause of numerous marriage break-ups. Michelle, being Scandinavian, liked to bask in indoor heat. To her anything below 25C was ‘chilly’. I, however, was naturally attenuated to cooler conditions and could wear a tee shirt in conditions that made Michelle turn blue. So, after some horse trading, we agreed that a temperature of between 18 and 20 degrees centigrade was ‘reasonable’ in winter.

How to achieve this target temperature? The first thing we had to consider was insulation. There are many types on the market, some being highly artificial, such as polystyrene, and some being more organic, such as wool and straw. The most important factor to consider with the insulation was the u value. This is simply the measure of the conductive properties of the material – a lower u value means less heat can escape (or get in during summer). Use can again be made of the sun by installing a large south-facing window and building an interior stone wall behind it and painting it with very dark paint. This is an ingenious and simple method for catching heat because the winter sun, being so low in the sky, only falls on your wall during the season, when it’s most needed. The solar rays are absorbed by the heavy stone in the day and the heat radiates out slowly throughout the night, heating the house in the process. During summer the sun is too high to hit the interior wall and you are spared being roasted inside your own home. A similar effect could be had by painting an exterior wall black during the winter and whitewashing it again during the summer.

For ourselves, however, we opted for a regular wood burning stove, primarily because much of the fuel could be sourced from our own land. The key thing here was that wood should be burned at a high intensity to get as much heat from it as possible – a smouldering log was a wasted log, it turned out.

When we had our basic systems sorted out it occurred to me that all we had done was bring the house up to a level of amenity that we had been conditioned to expect from our society. After all, other people had been living there for centuries without any of the infrastructure we had just gone to great effort and expense to install.

This gave me pause for thought about the meaning of technology. Mere mention of the word 'technology' to most people conjures up visions of the latest smart phone, or perhaps technicians working in a laboratory trying to find ingenious ways to fuse atoms. But when it comes down to it, it is the basic technology of everyday life – clean water that flows easily out of taps, interior lighting when it is dark, and a means of disposing of our sewage – that people have forgotten about. To me, that's what technology boiled down to, and it'll be the kind of technology that people will miss the most if it is no longer available.


  1. Ah yes, The Good Life! Fond memories. I still whistle Tom's 'tweet, tweet-a-tweet-a-tweet-a-tweet' from time to time.

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