Whether or not we believe in global warming is irrelevant. The fact is that all political Parties have signed up to this new religion and it will have a material effect on our lives and on the landscape. As the Government, egged on by ‘sustainable fascists’, urges, indeed threatens to force us to make our homes more energy efficient by filling the roof space with lagging and double-glazing the windows, a thought occurs.
If, as these fanatics would have us believe, UK temperatures are to rise by an average of 2 degrees Centigrade or more by 2050, then in order to stop ourselves boiling in summer in our ‘sustainable homes’ we must resort to installing and running air-conditioning units. Either that, or we shall have to remove all that roof lagging and allow the accumulated hot air to escape from the ovens that our homes will have become. Two degrees warmer may not sound much but it is the temperature currently enjoyed by the French who live in the Loire Valley and, not surprisingly, they do not lag their lofts.
However, rural Britain is well placed to take advantage of the chattering classes’ paranoia with global warming. We must not look this gift horse in the mouth. Of course those buzzwords of the modern ‘right on’ Notting Hill Gate lexicon, ‘Sustainable and Renewable’ are familiar to those of us who live in the country and make our money by growing trees or farming the land. If they were not, strange as it may seem to those who live in Notting Hill Gate, there would be no productive farmland or forestry in the UK left.
Until the Second World War, when farming became mechanised, some 25% of agricultural land was used to produce fuel in the form of hay and oats for animals who worked the land and provided the most common form of transport for the rest of the population. So there is nothing new in farms producing energy crops, nor anything new in water power or wind power, wood burning, bio fuels or solar power, nor even in anerobic digestion, which is the art of turning cow slurry into heat; the Irish having been doing it for years.
Most of these energy- and heat-producing ideas have been around since the dawn of civilisation, but only recently have we bothered to invest the money and the engineering brain power into making them more technologically efficient and thus interesting for the likes of you and me to think of installing or investing in them.
As energy costs are a large component in most people’s annual expenditure, the attraction of having our energy needs met by ‘renewables’ is obvious, especially if the ‘renewable’ in question comes from our own woods, fields or cows. Sadly, however, before we can harvest free, or nearly free, renewable energy and heat we must invest in the technology and this is where the concept of cheap power falls down.
If for instance you already have an oil-fired boiler system up and running, then it is impossible to justify the capital cost of pulling it out and replacing it with, say, a wood chip boiler. This is why Government offers grants of up to 40% of the capital costs of installing such technology and allows those who are in business to write off the whole cost against tax in year one. This, of course, is why renewable technology is set on a course of rapid expansion. Bucket-loads of Government money are being thrown at it.
The most visible sign of the success or otherwise of this approach by Government is likely to be the number of windmills which begin to sprout in the countryside. These are not large wind-farm windmills, but more modest models which farmers or landowners, seduced by the returns involved, can erect on their land. The joy of a windmill is that not only does it give its owner free electricity but any surplus power can be sold to the National Grid at a very attractive price. The downside is once again the capital cost—not to mention loss of popularity with neighbours.
The cost of installing a wind turbine and connecting it to the National Grid starts at about £15,000 for a 3.2 kwh (kilo watt hour) turbine 6.5 metres high and rises to £60,000 for a 15 kwh model 25 metres high. These prices are not inexpensive so, as from next year, Government will ensure that operators receive 23p per kilowatt for all power generated and an additional 5p per kilowatt for power exported via the National Grid. Such sums begin to make windmill operating attractive, particularly since the current cost of electricity to the consumer is around 14p per kilowatt.
Running the numbers, these figures mean that a windmill owner could expect to make a return on investment of 10-15%, a figure which would increase enormously if a capital grant was used to allay some of the installation costs as well. Are such returns sufficient? We will wait and see, but I am not impressed.
The other renewable concept which will have a radical effect on the countryside is wood chip burning. In this case, the effect is all positive. Wood energy counts as a renewable because it is deemed to be ‘carbon neutral’—that is to say, if you burn a ton of wood you release carbon into the atmosphere but the new tree which you planted in its stead will quickly recapture al of it. The biggest problem with Britain’s deciduous woodland today has been that much of it has been neglected because it had ceased to have an economic reason for its existence. The craze for wood heating, be it in wood burning stoves or in vast wood chip boilers, is changing all that. Suddenly fire wood is ‘hot’ and the price of it has more than doubled over the last couple of years. This is great news for woods. A market for rubbish trees means that the good trees will be given the space they need to grow and develop into fine timber stems of the future, while the constant harvesting of the understory for firewood and woodchips will give the owner a regular income.
In other words, the new vibrant firewood and woodchip market promises to ensure the restoration of Britain’s neglected hardwoods, which, for a forestry fanatic like me, is exciting stuff. Again, it is the capital cost of installing a wood chip central heating system which is intimidating—but a friend who has recently put one in said, ‘The marvellous thing is that I no longer feel guilty having the central heating on—in fact, I feel positively virtuous instead!’ That sort of feeling has to be worth real money.
At the bottom of the pyramid of ‘sustainable’ energy ideas is an open wood fire. Currently I am having an argument with my wife over whether to dispense with ours and replace it with a wood burning stove which will give out three times the heat for a third of the wood. Or, to put it more simply, whether to be uncomfortably chilly in winter or comfortably warm. She is vehement in her defence of the indefensible, the open fire. This looks lovely but when the wind is in the wrong direction tends to fill the room with smoke, provides plenty of heat for those who huddle around it but none for those two or three paces away, occasionally decides, on a whim, to deposit a still burning log on the carpet, or, when angry spits sparks all round the room. It gobbles up wood in vast quantities—wood moreover which I have to carry up from the log room—and most of the heat is expelled up the chimney. In short it is inefficient, a health hazard and a fire hazard. Compare that with a wood burning stove which is efficient, clean and does not threaten to burn the house down and it is a proverbial ‘no brainer’. Except that my wife does love an open fire.
There is a simpler, much cheaper way to save electricity or heating oil than installing expensive new renewable wood chip boilers or electricity-producing wind mills. Do not turn on the heating unless it is really cold and wear a thick jersey—and what is wrong with a vest? Nobody wears them nowadays apart from Americans but I remember my mother forcing me into ‘chill-proof’ vests 50 years ago. Perhaps we should start wearing them again. It would be the cheapest option, and they were made of wool.