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Chapter 5 of "Short Circuit" - page 4

While Dawson has been testing willows for wood-chip, Mike Bulfin has been experimenting with poplars at the agricultural experimental station at Kinsealy near Dublin. Alders and ash are being evaluated elsewhere. Other people have been testing relatively small gasifiers, too, including Ben Warren of Bristol University's Mechanical Engineering Department who has a 30kW gasifier at Long Ashton Research Station outside Bristol. This is smaller than Dawson's and Warren thinks it would be suitable for installation on farms of over 50 hectares. But what would the farms do with the heat? Use it for glasshouses? "Well, we've got a lot of greenhouses here at Long Ashton and the unit produces more than enough to supply them," Warren says. As part of his work for a PhD, Warren has been carefully calculating the energy-in/electricity-out ratio and has produced much the same figures as Foster. "I think the ratio is about one to four" he says.

Three points should be made about this work. The first is that Dawson's technology for producing woodchips is very much an industrial one and the energy-in/energy-out balance would improve if more local inputs, such as labour and horses, were substituted for external ones such as weedkillers and tractors. The next is that unless it is done with the aim of achieving community energy self-reliance, it is silly to use fossil fuel, land and labour to produce woodchips for burning when straw or forest lop-and-top and thnnings are still going to waste somewhere in the country. The third is that the low-grade heat must be used. This will almost certainly involve building district heating systems to serve existing housing as is done extensively in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. In Denmark, for example, seven of the first nine centralised biogas digesters had networks of hot water piping built to nearby villages for them. However, biomass-fired district heating systems (BMDH) have probably proved more successful in Austria than anywhere else in Europe and in 1993, 36 plants were instaled, 22 by farmers' co-ops, 10 by private firms, and two each by power utilities and municipalities. The first system was built by a sawmill operator in the village of Feldbach in 1979 and many of the 200-odd systems in place at the end of 1994 were in quite small communities.

"Villages with BMDH plants usually have between 500 and 3,000 inhabitants and are of a predominantly rural character" says an important EU-financed report, Pathways from Small Scale Experiments to Sustainable Regional Development, which looks at factors which affected the adoption of renewable energy technologies in four EU countries. "Accordingly, the size of BMDH plants varies between a few hundred kW and up to 8MW, with corresponding grids between 100 metres and 21 km. Almost two-thirds of the plants have a power of less than 1500 kW" the report goes on 27.

While most of the early plants were erected by people in the timber industry with wood-waste to burn, farmers with a few hectares of trees who had been selling wood as one of their sources of income forced their co-ops to move into district heating when saw-lumber and pulpwood prices collapsed in the 1980s. This was particularly true in those parts of Austria with the poorest prospects of developing alternative activities for the rural population in tourism or industry. In these areas, the farmers lobbied their state-level political representatives especially hard and persuaded them to make 35% capital grants and an equal sum in low-interest loans available to the co-ops. A large part of the rest of the plants' cost was then raised from the connection fees paid by the owners of the homes to be heated.

Even with grants and the farmers behind them, the co-ps found it impossible to get a district heating plant built in some villages either because many of their inhabitants distrusted the new technology or objected to the traffic or the chimney it would mean. In general, the villages in which plants were built were those in which a lot of community activities were already taking place. Where a co-op built a plant in the face of local opposition, the financial out-turn was often poor because, with a high proportion of people refusing to be connected, it had to build longer pipelines to sell its heat. "We noticed that all the villages [with plants] we visited were characterised by numerous local associations of villagers sharing such hobbies as music, sports, preparation of local events, or the planting of trees and flowers in the village streets. Common celebrations and good communications within the village were another characteristic," the report says.

Community cohesion was not enough by itself, however. Idealism was needed too, from both a plant's promoters and its customers. "BMDH is neither a very good business for the operators nor a cheap way to heat for customers" the report says. "What are the motivations of local actors to realise a project?" Interviews in eighty villages showed that many promoters were concerned about the environment, wanted to improve forest management and believed that their plants might make an important contribution to autonomous regional development. Their customers participated because they were also concerned about the environment, wished to support local farmers and the development of their region, and also appreciated the time and work that centrally-supplied heat saved them.

Although the Germans have found that the capital cost is actually lower to instal district heating on a new housing estate than to fit each property with its own gas-fired boiler28, the attitude in Britain and Ireland is that people are too individualistic to agree to buy their heat that way. As a result, two 5.5MW woodchip-burning power stations to be built in 1996 by a regional electricity company, SWEB, one at Eye in Suffolk, the other near Cricklade in Wiltshire, will waste over half their energy. "We'll be using some of the heat to dry the chips before they go into the gasifier and are looking for other uses. It's not economic to pipe the heat to people's houses in Britain because of the availability of natural gas," a spokeswoman for SWEB told me. "Until recently, we were penalised under the government's Non Fossil Fuel Obligation arrangements if we used the low-grade heat for anything at all."

The wood for the chips will be grown under contract by farmers and forestry waste will be used when available. However, straw will not be burned, even though the Eye power station will be in the heart of cereal country. "It requires special arrangements in the furnace and the supply could be erratic because it would not be grown under contract and would depend on demand levels in another industry" the spokeswoman explained, leading me to think that although SWEB prides itself on being a leader in the renewable energy field 29, its plans for both plants are not far removed from the 'let's-have-a-few-big-power-stations-near-the-coal-fields-and-not-bother-wit h-a-lot-of-little-ones-near-where-people-live-so-that-the waste-heat-can-be-used' attitude of the old Central Electricity Generating Board.

Policy in Ireland is no more enlightened. At the end of 1995, the Department of Energy invited companies to submit proposals to build and operate a biomass or biogas-fired power station of up to 30MW capacity, the output to be sold to the grid at 3.6p per unit. A grant of up to £7.5m could be made towards the capital costs to make the project attractive. But the specifications made no mention of the station using its low-grade heat. "We had a competition for a CHP [combined heat and power] project recently" an official told me . "In this case, we haven't excluded it but we haven't included it either. We're waiting to see what the industry will come up with."30 However, it would not be possible to favour a proposal which did use the low-grade heat. A district-heating add-on would have to be commercially viable by itself.

Growing coppice timber specifically for fuel may have a limited future. This is because willows and poplars only capture about 2% of the solar energy which falls on them when they convert it to wood, and, if the heat from the wood is wasted, only 0.4% of the sun's energy is still available by the time it becomes electricity. Compare this with the 18% rate of solar energy to electricity conversion already possible with commercial photo-voltaic (PV) cells and the 28% figure which has been reached in the laboratory, and it becomes apparent that specially-grown plants are a very poor way of harnessing the sun.

Modern PV cells already produce the amount of energy used in their manufacture in their first 2-3 years of life and their cost and energy content is falling dramatically as production methods improve: Professor Martin Green of the University of New South Wales has been able to reduce the materials cost per watt of capacity from US$2 to ten cents by finding a way to make satisfactory cells containing higher levels of impurities 31. As the first cells of the new type converted 15.2% of the sun's energy to electricity, the growing of wood chips for electricity will probably be doomed as soon as they enter volume production. This is just as well, as it will eliminate the danger that the rich will take over land to grow their fuel at the expense of the poor who needed it to grow their food. Moreover, if a totally different approach to PV technology claimed by Advanced Research Developments, Inc., of Athol, Mass., really stands up, the future of all other sources of power will be radically altered. ARD says that they are about to produce a plastic film which converts almost all of the incident solar energy into electricity at a cost of only 1 cent a watt 32.

In the medium-term, the best type of plants to grow specifically for energy purposes might prove to be algae. A system developed at the University of the West Indies and at the University of the West of England in Bristol involves growing chlorella in transparent cylindrical tanks and then drying and milling it before mixing it with diesel oil and burning it in a diesel engine to generate electricity. The waste heat from the engine is used to dry the algae and the carbon dioxide given off by its combustion is dissolved back into the liquid in the tanks so that the next crop of algae can take it up. Other nutrients are also recycled.

It has been claimed that the algae convert 15% of the sunlight entering the tanks to usable energy and the cost of electricity generated this way is 2.5p/kWh when calculated on a typical commercial basis using a 10% interest rate and assuming a 15-year supply contract. It has also been said that a 2.5MW power plant using this system would need 7.5-10 hectares of chlorella tanks to supply it, compared with the 1,500 hectares of coppice that would needed to supply the same amount of power and that the diesel content of the fuel could be as low as 5%. I have been unable to verify any of these claims, however, because the two companies involved in the commercial development of the technique, Biotechna-Graesser Ltd33 and Photosynthesis UK Ltd. either did not respond to my repeated enquiries over a period of weeks or said that while they had the information I was seeking, it could not be found. Biotechna did say, however, that the technique was not yet in commercial use.

Future Prospects

The electricity production and supply system which will probably emerge in the future is one in which consumers will use the national or international grid not so much as a source of supply but as a battery. Many households will produce their own electricity with a combination of solar panels on their roofs and biogas-powered generating sets and, whenever they have more than they need, they will 'bank' the surplus by feeding it into the grid. Equally, whenever they need more power than they are producing, they will take the shortfall from the mains: their meter will run both ways, buying power from them at rates which vary according to the time of day and the season and charging it out on several rates as well. The biogas would be piped to them from a neighbourhood digester and the waste heat from the engine used to warm the house, an approach which might be better in rural areas where the houses are dispersed than that used by the centralised biogas plants in Denmark with their big generators and miles of insulated pipes. FIAT is already manufacturing a single-house-sized CHP system, the Totem, but this needs modifying to run on biogas.

At University College, Cork, Professor Gerry Wrixon has developed a combined electrical generation system that may become commonplace in the future. It consists of a wind generator and a bank of PV cells coupled to an engine running on biogas. "If you look at these graphs" he says in his presentations, "you will see that when the wind is blowing it's usually overcast and we don't get much power from the PV system. On the other hand, when it is sunny, there is often little wind. The two systems, wind and PV, complement each other to a remarkable extent. However, for the periods when there is no wind and no sun, we have the biogas engine. If you have your own digester this means that you can store the gas until you cannot get electricity from anything else."

A second change will be that the grid will become a common carrier for electricity rather than the distribution arm of a monopoly supplier. As a result, local generating stations will be able to send electricity through the existing network to their customers rather than selling it to a state or private monopoly. As we saw, this is already happening in Britain to a limited extent and will be extended further in 1998.

These changes in the way electricity is generated and the grid used are likely to come about whether communities aim for self-reliance or not. At a gathering of more than 200 executives from many of the world's leading power companies in Arizona in early 1995, a common theme was the way deregulation and technological change were changing the shape of their industry. "New power generation technologies are undermining the massive power stations that most people imagine is the only way to make electricity" David Lascelles wrote in his account of the meeting in The Financial Times. "In future, consumers will be served by the small, independent power stations that are already springing up, often owned by newcomers to the business. This could lead to miniature home generators which enable each household to make its own electricity, and even feed its surplus back to the grid."34 If he is right, the two key questions are: will local, renewable resources be used to power these small generating stations and will local savings provide the capital to build them? Only if communities act decisively will the answers be 'Yes' to both.

Click for 2004 update describing an academic study of community-based energy projects in the UK


1. Savings in transport
Most communities will find it easier and cheaper to use less energy than to meet all their present power requirements with supplies from renewable sources. In most cases, too, they will find that they can make the biggest demand reductions in areas in which they consume the most.

In industrialised countries, this makes the transport sector the prime area for cuts. In the UK, for example, conventional breakdowns of energy use show that 33% of energy goes to power road vehicles, aircraft, ships and trains. This compares with the 27% of energy used by households, another 27% in industry, and 13% in buildings such as shops, offices, hospitals, libraries and schools. In the US, 31% of all energy goes to power the transport fleet and the Irish figure is 20%. However, these conventional breakdowns regard the energy that goes into building the docks, airports, roads, multi-storey car parks and the rest of the physical infrastructure that a modern transportation system needs as being used by the industrial sector. The energy used to construct the cars and planes, the ships and trains and to build the factories that build the vehicles is treated the same way. And as still more energy is used for such tasks as lighting the streets and providing packing materials which are not allocated to transport in the conventional total, it is easy to see why Ben Warren thinks that more than half the fossil energy burnt in industrial countries is consumed directly or indirectly by the transport sector 35. This means that curbing transport activity is one of the most promising ways of reducing fossil energy use.

The amount of energy used for transportation in industrial countries has risen significantly over the past forty years not because more goods have been consumed but because roughly the same weight of goods has been moved over longer and longer distances as a result of the increasing concentration and sophistication of production: in Britain, the number of tonne-miles grew by 150% between 1952 and 1992 although the production of coal, steel and other bulk commodities all fell. This trend towards moving things further and further would obviously be slowed or reversed if communities began to do more for themselves, A study by Stefanie Böge of the Wuppertal Institute in Germany shows the potential in this direction. She took a very simple product, strawberry yoghurt, which can be made at home with milk and fruit from the immediate area, and worked out how far the industrial system meant its components had to travel before a small jar could reach the supermarket. The result? The surprising figure of 3,494km.36

The journeys made by all the materials needed in the modern economy to get a jar of strawberry yoghurt onto a supermarket shelf.

This huge total was reached not because the main ingredients had to travel very far to reach the dairy in Stuttgart. The milk, which comprised 78.9% of the jar's contents, came from the surrounding countryside, and so did the sugar. The strawberries added some distance, though, since, totally unnecessarily, they were grown in Poland where labour is cheaper and sent for processing in Aachen near the Belgian border. However, as the map below shows, the real culprits were the packing materials because, although the jar only had to travel 170km from a glassworks in Neuberg, the quartz sand to make it had to be brought 400km from Cologne, the paste for the label from Dusseldorf, the glue for the carton from Lüneburg, the plastic granules from Switzerland, the paper from Austria, the aluminium from Weiden and so on and so on. And since most of these packaging components had to be made with materials such as starch, resin, pulp or alumina brought from somewhere else, the trail became extremely long. Böge calculated that the yoghurt maker could cut transport distances by over a third just by introducing standardised re-usable jars which did not need to travel back to the original factory but could be re-filled with other food products by other firms, and adopting re-usable crates for the jars so that a new cardboard carton was not needed for every trip.

Under the present economic system, the least-energy efficient transport system, the movement of freight by road, enjoys substantial subsidies which have enabled it to expand at the expense of rail freight, which only requires a quarter of the energy, canals and coastal shipping. Böge quotes Dieter Teufel's 1989 study of the social costs moving freight by road which suggests that, in Germany, the tax on diesel fuel might need be increased enough to raise its price to five times its current level to compensate citizens for the health, social and environmental damage which lorries do. I have been unable to trace similar estimates for Britain 37. Teufel's calculation of the tax shortfall is as follows:38


Estimated total costs and tax income for lorries in West Germany in 1987.
All taxes   6,724 million
Road expenditure   8,730 million
Accident costs   5,030 million
Accident-related distress   2,600 million
Air pollution   6,350 million
Noise costs (private dwellings)   9,850 million
Other noise costs   2,500 million
Congestion   2,000 million
Water pollution from dangerous goods   3,800 million
Water pollution from road salting   2,800 million
Health damage to lorry drivers   1,100 million
Other   1,200 million
Total costs 46,000 million

Because he was just considering the social costs of moving goods by truck and not the overall costs of the transportation system, Teufel's figures leave out the considerable financial and environmental costs involved in the disposal of packaging materials plus the environmental ones caused by their production. These costs should be ascribed to the transport sector since, without packaging, goods could not be moved safely over long distances. In fact, the closer one looks at transport, the more subsidies appear but, as it is impossible to put reliable values on most of them, no-one knows the overall total. All we can say with certainty is that transport subsidies are huge and if they were removed, local manufacturers would be far better placed to compete in their local market with bigger firms based elsewhere and goods would tend to be moved by lower-energy, less environmentally-damaging forms of transportation such as rail, canal and sea.

There is very little communities can do on a local level about road freight subsidies except campaign to have heavy trucks kept off certain roads. But in one area of transport - the use of the private car - energy consumption is under their direct control. Car travel - and consequently, the amount of fossil energy it consumes - has increased sharply since World War II: in Britain, the annual distance travelled rose tenfold between 1952 and 1992. Threequarters of all journeys were under five miles. Car use itself increased car use by making it unsafe or unpleasant to walk and cycle and by reducing the frequency of public transport and lengthening its the journey time. So dangerous have many roads become in the past twenty years that driving children to schools well within a comfortable walking distance for them has become a major parental chore. And while great-grandfather's pony ran on the renewable energy source under the trees in the orchard and pulled a trap made in the market town, the cars we use instead are entirely the products of the global economy to which they tie us by their constant need for national currency to buy, insure, tax, repair and fuel them. Is it entirely accidental that car ownership is forbidden for the Amish whose prosperous, socially-cohesive communities are perhaps the best example of self-reliant communities in the industrialised world?

Any community moving towards greater self-reliance cannot therefore avoid looking for ways to enable its members to live satisfactorily while running fewer cars. This means much more than maintaining or developing public transport. It means working closer to home. It means providing local delivery services, keeping the local shop open and putting the travelling shop back on the road. It means car owners giving lifts to neighbours on a regular basis and, before they leave on a long journey, checking with agencies like those in Germany which enable people going in the same direction to travel along too. It means making the roads safe for pedestrians and cyclists and establishing community car pools.

The German lift-arranging agencies advertise under M (for mitfahrzentrale, literally 'with travel centre') in the classified section of the telephone directory and three or four are normally listed in a sizeable town. A driver planning a journey rings one of them three or four days beforehand and gives his or her name, address, telephone number, the registration number of the car, the destination, the time and date of departure and the number of people they are happy to take. Drivers pay no fee to the agency, which enters all this information into its computer. People looking for lifts then telephone in to see what is available and if someone is going their way, they have to call at the agency office to pay a fee, which is generally between 5 and 15DM depending on the distance, before they are the driver's phone number.

"It's much safer than hitch-hiking" says Sophie Wolf who has used the system. "The agency gives you the registration number of the car and advises you that if someone comes to the meeting place in a different vehicle you should not go. If there is any doubt, you can ask to see the driver's identity card."

The agencies' rules stipulate that drivers must have adequate insurance and be prepared to drop their passengers off at a bus stop or train station so that they can continue their journey, Passengers pay the driver something for their lift - the amount is left to be negotiated between them up to a maximum set by the agency for the distance covered. This is generally about twice the fee paid to the agency. "All the agencies' computers are linked" Wolf says, "so if I get a lift from Düsseldorf to Berlin, I may find myself travelling with a driver returning home there who registered with a Berlin agency before he left."

The only long-distance lift-sharing agency in Britain is based in Newcastle upon Tyne . It was set up as Travelshare by a music graduate, Lindsay Gill, in March 1993 and later merged with a slightly older London agency, Freewheelers, and took its name 39. "We've got 16,000 members, roughly a quarter of whom are drivers" Gill told me at the end of 1995. "We've had a lot of press publicity and membership is growing rapidly. There's a lot more interest in the idea than there was when I started."

A year's subscription for both drivers and passengers costs £8 and passengers pay £2 for the telephone number of a driver going their way so that they can arrange a pick-up point and departure time. Security is ensured because members are issued with identity cards and the passenger is told the make, colour and registration number of the car which will pick them up. Same-sex lifts can be arranged. The agency suggests that passengers each pay 3.5p a mile towards the cost of the car's fuel. Gill is in no doubt that it is better for Britain to have single national agency is better than a German-style network of local ones because it keeps down overheads. "Their computers are linked, so the Germans essentially have a single agency with a lot of outlets which the users have to pay to support," she says.

2002 Update on Freewheelers by Caroline Whyte

Car pools cut motoring costs and energy use (click for panel from original text)

Page 5 of Chapter 5

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Short Circuit by Richard Douthwaite: links within this site

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