Thursday, 20 September 2012

Alternative Energy by Brynneth Nimue Brown

Going Solar

For the last year and a bit I’ve been living on a narrowboat. It’s meant being off the grid, which in turn has meant sourcing electricity. I’ve lived with a solar panel, which has in turn made me rethink power use.
Solar power has a number of flaws – you don’t get any during the night, and in the winter there’s a lot more dark hours than light ones. Overcast skies aren’t good for power either, and we’ve had a lot of those too. When I started on the boat, I had a regular laptop, but it was almost impossible to run it. Instead, I’ve transferred to a netbook, which takes far less juice to charge up, and has a battery life of about 9 hours. The result being that I can work from the netbook, relying mostly on the solar panel.

What I couldn’t hope to do is run a DVD player, radio, toaster, kettle, washing machine etc off my little panel. The last year has taught me that I need to be very precise about matching my energy use to the energy available. This has been a good lesson. The ease of sourcing electricity makes us oblivious to how much we use. The boat provides a ‘beep of doom’ when the batteries are getting low, and total electricity consciousness has ensued. Sadly I don’t think beeps of doom are available for regular homes.

Now, realistically most people are not going to do anything quite so radical as the above in the quest for greener living. But there are lessons I think can usefully be applied elsewhere. Think, seriously, about what you need and how and when you need it. I promise you, that you need less than you suppose you do. Particularly in terms of home entertainment. Using sources of entertainment sparingly turns them from things you take for granted and get little out of, to things you learn to treasure and appreciate. Used sparingly and with thought, the technology gives a lot more than it does when used casually. The overall result is more joy, not less, so its win all round.
Wind up gadgets create an immediate, physical awareness of the power required, and they take you off grid. I love my wind up radio, I use it a lot. It takes effort to use it, so I won’t run it as sound wallpaper, and this is a good thing. It has made me more discriminating. If you had to run on a treadmill to power the TV, which programs would you give up on? So give up on them.
You can now get small solar chargers capable of charging small hand held devices. I’d recommend exploring this, not least because it puts your consumption rates into perspective. How many hours of sun do you need to play one game on a mobile phone? Having a real measure of electricity, aside from the bills for using it, is a great help in working out how to value it, and what might not be necessary after all.
Often, there is an old fashioned way of doing a thing that uses far less energy in the first place. I use solar power to dry the washing. And wind power. In other words, I have a washing line, and it costs me nothing. Sometimes I use candles for lighting – although those have petrochemicals in, so it’s not a solution without complexities. Sometimes, more powerfully, I sit in the gloom and just enjoy it. I match sleeping times to darkness, this saves on electric lights and has proved far better for my mind and body. I turn things off.
We’re forever being sold gadgets that are supposed to save our lives somehow. Mostly, they don’t, they just push up our already unviable consumption rates. Having a few things you really value, using them sparingly, and being able to turn them off not only reduces electrical consumption, but it is good for the soul. I’ve been living it for more than a year now, and its good stuff. I am happier in my gadgets than ever before, because I appreciate them more and only use them when I really want or need them. When I go back to more regular living arrangements, I’m not going back to former levels of gadget dependency. I feel so much lighter and cleaner this way.
Alternative energy sources are a great thing, but unless we cut the demand side too, they won’t be enough. 

Brynneth Nimue Brown 

10 August 2012 12:46

(images from