Powering Up

After many years of living off-grid with a small 600w solar array, I have this week been successfully connected to the mains. The immediate benefit was plugging in a fridge and having a cool beer.


Living off-grid has done nothing for me if not helped me appreciate the enormous value of reliable electricity supply. In this part of the world, solar is extremely variable at any time of the year. I could only use the washing machine if I was sure of several hours of clear sunshine, for example. Living this way, although winning me Brownie points for virtue from visitors concerned about use of fossil fuels, is neither more “sustainable” nor cheaper. I have noticed a phrase used by those who work in the renewable energy sector: “free energy” as in “use a generator when the sun/wind is not there, and the ‘free’ energy the rest of the time.” But none of this is ‘free’- this is a deception as misleading as conspiracy claims of suppressed ‘free energy’ machines.

(If you believe in such conspiracy theories, or the plausibility of “free energy” I suggest a thought experiment: what would a free energy machine look like? How big might it be? Would just one do for the whole world, or would every household and industrial plant need their own? How would the energy be transmitted to the users? Would that be ‘free’? The point is of course, wind and solar power are indeed free, but getting them to a usable form is not.)

I know several people around West Cork who live off-grid with wind, solar or both, and even those with bigger systems- which would have cost substantially more than mine (EUR5000 in 2009)- routinely rely on petrol or diesel generators when they have not enough “free energy” to keep the lights on. Since I will now be saving the costs of running a generator, I expect in the winter at least to be actually saving money, in addition of course to having access to far more power when I need it.

The draw-back with off-grid living is of course the storage issue: batteries are expensive and have a life-expectancy of only a few years. Grid-tie and national renewable options have the same draw-back: you cannot store electricity, and only having access to power at the whim of nature is not much use to anyone: unlimited “free” energy that was available only, say, between 3-4am would be of little benefit with no means of storing it.

The day after my power was turned on I awoke to reports that the UK could be facing blackouts very soon. The Guardian argues that this is because energy companies shutting gas plants that do not make good returns, because they have been undercut by cheap imports of coal from America and elsewhere. Lomborg argues on the other hand that the UK has its priorities wrong by opting to continue to subsidize expensive off-shore wind while sitting on the world’s biggest deposit of shale gas.

It is wrong to see wind and solar as “clean” when they clearly also involve large-scale industrial processes and produce toxic waste; neither are they in anyway “free”- indeed, some analysts claim the drop in price of pv panels is largely driven by subsidies and “energy from solar PV is currently about one order of magnitude more expensive than energy from coal.”

The Coomhola and Borlin valley where I live is a remote part of west Cork which only achieved electrification in the 1970s. (High-speed broad-band access has still to achieve this!) According to Hidden Gold- History and Folklore of the Coomhola and Borlin Valleys by Julia Kemp (1998)

Electricity came to Lower Coomhola in 1958, but did not reach the higher parts of the valley until 1974. It was offered previously but it was considered too much to pay another bill on top of the existing rents and rates.


My energy needs are still modest. I am not going to become suddenly profligate in my energy consumption. I was brought up to turn off lights and appliances when not in use and will continue to do so. I have spent extra money on energy-efficient LED bulbs in the hope that they will last much longer (despite my electrician scornfully telling me they were a waste of money).


This 4W LED bulb amply illuminates the whole room with a bright but soft light

In the times we live in, where it is fashionable to talk about “powering down” – as of course I also used to preach– I invite you to join me this week in celebrating the wonders of cheap electricity, available on demand, and spare a thought for the 1.2 billion people worldwide who still do not have access to this. Let’s work to change the environmentalist mindset that energy use is somehow bad and aspire instead to a world where everyone can Power-Up and have at least some of the benefits of electricity that the rest of us take for granted.

Electricity– seen on Bantry market last week


Green for Me Talk for UCC Enviro Soc

I had an enjoyable evening at the Green for Me event at UCC Environmental Society on Tuesday where I gave a talk along with Dan Boyle of the Green Party and well-known biologist and TV/radio presenter Eanna ni Lamhna as part of their Green Week.

The theme given us for our talks was “My Reasons for Being Green.”

Eanna spoke first, but I had already got into a discussion with her about population as soon as she came into the lecture hall, pointing out that birth rates are declining everywhere, and hurriedly added in a few graphs to prove my point; her own graph was I felt somewhat misleading in that it showed only the dramatic population expansion of the past hundred years, without any context or explanation that this phase finished some 20 years ago.

Update: As Patrick Hayes writes here in response to David Attenborough’s recent Malthusian remarks, even sub-Saharan Africa has seen a massive drop in birthrates:

But as Slate has observed, it’s not just the most developed nations: ‘From 1960 to 2009, Mexico’s fertility rate tumbled from 7.3 live births per woman to 2.4, India’s dropped from six to 2.5, and Brazil’s fell from 6.15 to 1.9. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, where the average birthrate remains a relatively blistering 4.66, fertility is projected to fall below replacement level by the 2070s.’

All of which is bad news for Attenborough and his Malthusian ilk, as it reveals that what lurks behind their doom-mongering is prejudice rather than fact. That becomes increasingly evident when you hear headline-generating comments, such as those Attenborough made recently to the Radio Times: ‘We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia; that’s what’s happening. Too many people there. They can’t support themselves – and it’s not an inhuman thing to say. It’s the case.’

Too many people in Ethiopia? This is a country which, according to the World Bank, has a mere 83 people per square kilometre. This is the same as Serbia, and there aren’t mass starvations there. At 196 people per square kilometre, Switzerland has a far higher population density than Ethopia, but people aren’t starving there. Nor in Japan, where there are 350 people per square kilometre, or the Netherlands, which has 493 people per square kilometre.

She then went on to talk about climate change and supported the issues around this with two more rather misleading slides, one of polar bears and one of deserts. Polar bears are of course the poster child of climate change and have been used to very good propaganda effects since before Al Gore; but the reality seems very different- many polar bear populations are increasing, they seem remarkably adaptable to declining sea ice.
A much greater threat to bears in the Arctic than global warming is hunting.

So bears polar bears are probably an eye-catching but bad example of the effects of climate change- so far at least. Similarly, desertification also is more complex than just laying it at the feet of CO2 emissions- de-forestsation from human activity being another obvious cause, with underlying poverty often being the problem.

Eanna then wnet onto talk about renewable energy- “we have very little renewable energy- and yet the wind blows all the time!” Yes, it’s a no-brainer: humans, especially Irish humans in a country that has been hailed as the Saudi Arabia of wind- choose to use Polar-Bear murdering fossil fuels when they could just switch to clean wind.

Unfortunately, one of the major draw-backs with wind is that it does not in fact blow all the time even in Ireland, as anyone who has lived off-grid with wind-power as I have done in the past will tell you: plenty of calm still “soft” days Ireland where you get effectively no power from wind, no matter how many turbines you might have.

Even a super-grid covering the whole of Europe would not solve the problem– there is really quite dramatic indetermittency issues Europe-wide as well. For this reason, wind can never on its own replace fossil fuels or nuclear, and as another graph of Eanna’s showed quite well, renewables currently only supply a tiny percentage of energy- for well-understood reasons that are more to do with the laws of physics and cost than anything else.

More controversially, Eanna then went onto discuss waste, asking why dont we have have incinerators- a local hot-potato. “You can’t even mention them- they are considered as bad as GMOs!” The last time I had seen Eanna was at the potato day last year in Skibbereen, where she had had done an admirable job of myth-busting about the GE potato trials that started last year.

She then commented that at the protest meetings on incinerators she had been to, at the break about a third of the protestors went out to smoke!

Eanna finished her entertaining talk by admonishing us to eat only food that is in season and plant trees to help combat climate change.

I was up next, and began by staking out my credentials as a back-to-the-lander. While preparing the presentation I had in fact dug up photos of a commune I had lived in in the 1980s on the Welsh borders.

This is a photo of the Earthworm Housing Co-op from 1990, possibly when I was still actually living there.Brings back memories- many of which make me cringe!


I then discussed my involvement with the Peak Oil movement, and how my views had changed as time went on and the expected collapse failed to materialise, and the new energy story became one of the Golden Age of Gas.

I then used Stewart Brand’s Four Environmental Heresies to frame my new perspective on “Being Green.”

-population growth stablising and the world is not over-populated;
-cities are green
-nukes are green
-genetic engineering is green

I then gave a brief explanation of the Environmental Transition- the idea that environmentalism is a product of wealth and industrial growth rather than a reaction to it, and told the story from Shellenberger and Nordhaus’ book Breakthrough about the fires on the Cuyahoga River:cuyahoga_fire650

In June 22nd 1969 Time Magazine showed this photo of burning oil on Cuyahoga River with the caption
“The Price of Optimism” and it became emblematic of start of the US Environmental Movement.

The problem was, the photo was not from the 1969 fire, which has burned out in half-an-hour before the Time photographer could get there- but from an earlier and much more severe fire from 1952. In fact, there had been fires on the Cuyahoga river for a hundred years, some of them burning for days and causing loss of life: but the society had not yet reached a level of wealth and development- which would support universities with Environmental Societies- until much later. Poor people are not generally environmentalists- they have more expressing concerns, but once society has a critical mass of relatively affluent educated people with time on their hands, then industry is compelled to clean up its act.

I concluded my presentation with a quotation from Daniel Botkin’s book The Moon in the Nautilus Shell.:

Our perspective, ironically in this scientific age, depends on ancient myths and deeply buried beliefs. To gain a new view, one necessary to deal with global environmental problems, we must break free of old assumptions and myths about nature and ourselves while building on the scientific and technical advances of the past.

Dan Boyle followed me and began by expressing surprise to find himself having to defend the broad thrust of the environmental movement from the past few decades. He began by emphasising his agreement that Luddism is false, and that greens depend upon science and technology;

but seemed to struggle to hide some exasperation at my reference to Lomborg: “It is NOT the case that you burn your hydrocarbons and then clean up afterwards”- rather missing the point about the environmental transition, because of course that is precisely what the greens have been doing, otherwise we would never have embarked on industrialisation in the first place: the greens would have stopped us!

Dan’s main points seemed to be a bunch of Green Herrings: the supposed rallying cries of “bigger faster more” are the problem; untrield technology is dangerous and we should proceed with greater caution;
while his reference to dangers of the “chemical soup” used in frakking, and from “cross-contamination” from genetic engineering belie his claim to environmentalism being underpinned by science. Not to mention his suggestion that we can have “smaller and more efficient” wind turbines- surely not? To become more efficient, wind turbines can only do one thing: get bigger, due to well-understood laws of physics concerning wind-speed increasing to the square of the altitude/height and rotor span’s ability to collect the diffuse wind energy from a given space.

In the discussion and questions afterwards I was challenged quite strongly on nuclear waste issues, and general “Pandora’s Box” concerns about whether naughty humans should really be trusted with technology.

Dan Boyle made the very good point that at a meeting he had attended recently in the midlands concerning the proposed giant wind farm there, anti-wind activists used the same rhetoric and alarmism used by the anti-nuclear lobby, even including the threat of radiation- from wind turbines!

A popular theme seemed to be that rather than constantly striving for more energy sources, we should just use less. “Let’s turn out the lights then!” I said looking up to the ceiling at the dozens of lights that were probably consuming more energy that evening than I would at home in a year. My personal experience of living off the grid was apparently not persuasive however, and when I pointed out that there are still a couple of billion people without electricity at all in the world, I was told, “They can just use the Gravity Light!”

“Would you use one?”

“Well, it would be great for an outdoor light or something.”

Indeed it would, and for those without electric lights of any kind, this remarkable invention will surely be a wonderful boon. But for those who think that we can or will do anything other than make cosmetic changes in our energy usage, that “powerdown” can in some way substitute for cheap reliable electricity supply, should contemplate what life might be like if one or two gravity lights is all you ever have as a light supply, for the rest of your lives, ie without development.

Several people came up to me afterwards and thanked me for a thought-provoking perspective, while others took a more conventional green- perspective, concerned more about a presumed loss of contact with Nature, the virtues of the simple life and the insanity of endless growth rather than addressing the concerns of the poor. “We are all too greedy in this country!” proclaimed Eanna at one point.

But as Colin McInnes shows in this award-winning essay, growth is not just a matter of extraction and consumption, but is also about complexity:

While innovation-driven growth has delivered immense improvements to the human condition, it is also the means through which human needs can be gradually decoupled from the environment. Growth emerges from productivity, doing more with less. For example, new additive manufacturing technologies, so-called ‘3D printers’, look set partly to replace the wasteful subtractive manufacturing of machine tools. In contrast, in coming down from our oil high, as advocated by {Richard} Heinberg, we could regress to using whale oil for lighting, as was the case prior to commercial oil production. But this hardly constitutes progress, economic or environmental….

The real worry of Heinberg’s vision of a post-growth world is his straight-faced assertion that ‘there should be [an] increasing requirement for local production and manual labour’. This chilling claim is more Year Zero than zero growth. A return to carbohydrate-fuelled manual labour may be appealing to Heinberg and others as a means of powering down our lives and reconnecting with the land. But he shouldn’t expect a long queue of volunteers.

Maybe not- but he could well expect a long line of green ideologues who have forgotten that their green ideas are only possible because of the benefits brought by the very techno-industrialism that they campaign against.

Cool It!

I showed Lomborg’s film Cool It! to my students last week and was gratified that it received a small ripple of applause.

Directed by Ondi Timoner, the film is very much a response to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and like that film also shows Lomborg giving a powerpoint presentation, which includes a slide of Gore shaking Lomborg’s hand, which he quips “must have been taken seconds before he realised who I was- as he is still smiling.”

No-one has any reason to be a fan of Al Gore and some of the mistakes and misrepresentations in An Inconvenient Truth are clearly exposed in Lomborg’s film:

-sea level rise is expected to be a couple of foot by the end of the century, not the 20mfeet that Gore suggests we should worry about if Greenland melts- an event not feasible for a millenium at least;

-Nairobi, which Gore claims was previously at too high an altitude to suffer malaria, has in fact had the disease since its foundation in 1899; malaria was also prevalent in much of Europe and North America, and is much more a function of poverty and resources than climate;

-Polar bears populations have been increasing in recent decades, and suffer much more from hunting than climate change; (see Ben Pile’s discussion of Polar bear population dynamics here.)

-Hurricane frequency- Gore uses Katrina as an example of why we should be scared of increased strength and damage caused by hurricanes- but Lomborg again shows that the tragedy of New Orleans was more political failures and our resilience to hurricane damage more a function of wealth, which both results in higher insurance pay-outs, and greater ability to prepare and withstand extreme weather events. Continue Reading

Power Hour: Please don’t turn the Lights Out

I meant to post something about Earth Hour last night when it took place, but ended up sharing dinner with friends- none of whom had heard of it, though its organisers claim it to be the “largest environmental event in history.”

Earth Hour was instigated five years ago by the World Wildlife Fund . The WWF state:

Hundreds of millions of people across the world – in a record 150 countries and territories – switched off their lights on Saturday night for WWF’s Earth Hour, the world’s biggest call-to-action for the protection of the planet.

But as Donna Laframboise explains, Earth Hour is not the result of a grassroots movement but was actually instigated by corporations:

Earth Hour was brought into this world by corporations
Launched in Sydney, Australia in 2007 there was never anything grassroots or shoestring about it. There’s no history of penniless activists toiling in obscurity, working their fingers to the bone, hoping against hope to attract attention to their cause.

Earth Hour is, instead, the brainchild of two large corporate entities – the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Fairfax Media Limited.

WWF’s partners include Coca-Cola and IKEA- hardly the most likely bedfellows of environmentalists who yearn for a return to the simpler life of the pre-industrial, and rather dark, world before fossil fuels began to destroy the climate.

Now I’ve nothing against candle- lit dinners or acoustic music sessions, but as someone who lives off-grid and knows more than most in the developed world about electricity shortage, I really wonder what sort of message Earth Hour is supposed to convey.

I have no mains electricity, instead supplying power for my own lights and computer from 600watts of solar photvoltaic panels charging about 1000Ah battery storage. Through the long dark days of winter, when my demand for lighting is highest and the sun’s beneficence at its lowest, I largely rely on a back-up petrol generator. Not only was my limited solar system far more expensive than mains electricity- about EUR5000 to set up initially- but the amount of power I have available much of the time is tiny. In discussing renewable energy with students, I find it quite hard for people who have only ever experienced the convenience of the mains to understand what it means to live without it. Quite simply, not having power as as and when you need it is a severe limitation, and not one most people would choose I think to live with long-term.

In the developed world, Ireland was a relative late-comer, only completing its programme of rural electrification in the late 1970s, which “utterly transformed rural life in all its aspects – economic, social, and cultural.”

Sitting in darkness for an hour in springtime might feel like a nice way to show concern for the environment, but seems to achieve little in terms of actually reducing energy consumption. Activists who feel this is a worthwhile activity would perhaps do better to try turning the power out for, say, a whole week in the middle of winter, which might bring them a dose of much needed reality. (“Are you allowed to answer the phone during Earth Hour?” inquired my dinner hostess.)

Or perhaps, rather than continue to tolerate the profligate energy consumption of the western liberal democracies that have sired them, they might prefer to move to North Korea in solidarity with Gaia, where every hour is Earth Hour.

Electricity has surely been one of the greatest boons for improving human well-being, something which we in the West tend to take for granted, and electric light more than just a symbol of Enlightenment values. We need electricity both literally and symbolically to resist the reactionary forces that would see us return to Medieval superstitions.

The new documentary made for the powerdown/localisation movement Transition Towns, In Transition 2.0, while not linked directly to Earth Hour, extends the same theme with the soundtrack by Rebecca Mayes and her song “Turn the Lights Out”:

“we were friends in the rawest of ways
no machines, no technology in the way”.

In this interview with Rob Hopkins, Mayes explains the song as “a nostalgic look at childhood, a wish to return to some kind of simplicity”- sentiments that perhaps sum up much of what is deluded in the environmental movement.

I’m sure Mayes is a very nice person and a talented song-writer but this message seems more than a little naive, even dangerous. Nor should the glaring contradiction of using communications technology to record and promote a film that sneers at the very same technology be glossed over.

As an environmental message, Earth Hour is worse than an empty gesture; electricity should be celebrated as one of humanity’s crowning achievements. More appropriate might be a candle-lit vigil, not as “fighting climate change” or some romantic yearning for childhood innocence, but in solidarity with the 2 billion people on the planet who still don’t have access to it. Maybe the corporations behind Earth Hour should re-brand the event as Power Hour, and campaign for the wealthy nations to help extend this most basic foundation of civilisation to everyone.

Modernization as the road to salvation

An important essay by The Death of Environmentalism authors Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus appeared in Orion Magazine this week.

Entitled Evolve- A case for modernization as the road to salvation, Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue that humans have always used technology to solve problems, and that, while technology can of course also cause problems, the best way to address these very same problems is…. more technology:

MANY ENVIRONMENTALLY CONCERNED people today view technology as an affront to the sacredness of nature, but our technologies have always been perfectly natural. Our animal skins, our fire, our farms, our windmills, our nuclear plants, and our solar panels—all 100 percent natural, drawn, as they are, from the raw materials of the Earth.

Continue Reading