I have a windmill in my backyard and I am very fond of it. On calm days swallows have been known to sit on it. When the wind blows hard across the fields we know our batteries are brimming with beautiful clean energy. But oddly enough, with all this power surging freely into our house, we are now much more reluctant to waste energy than we used to be in the old days of electricity bills. Owning a windmill can change your outlook on life.
This was the message I wanted to get across when BBC Scotland came to call but it seems our wires were crossed.
Times have changed since I first wrote this post back in 2006 and updated in the the pre-election campaign of 2011. Here we are in 2023 in a world warming to dangerous temperatures faster than even the more pessimistic scientists were predicting.
The signs were there of course, 12 years ago, blowing in the wind, but it was difficult to get either politicians or media to take proper notice. So after being interviewed by BBC Scotland, I ranted a little…
[Flashback to 2006] As a journalist I am more comfortable writing words than talking to the camera. On this occasion I was happy to get the chance to talk about life with the windmill – inside me there is growing a green evangelist that wants to get a waste-not-want-not message out to the wider (windmill-fearing) world. But of course the Beeb just wanted a human story to liven up a rather dull Scottish Executive announcement about (a little) extra cash for renewable energy. I didn’t spot quickly enough that the very nice reporter and cameraman had arrived with their script already prepared. My part was simply to add a few live quotes and switch on an electric appliance or two.
My little rant was obviously edited out as soon as they got in the car and headed back to Edinburgh in time to slot the item into the regional news at 6.30pm. There I am making a cup of tea and commenting on the economics of installing a windmill – but not a peep about sustainability or the curious fact that owning a windmill helps you understand the real value of energy.
Rediscovering the wonder of electricity
I think that was a lost opportunity but the topic is not going away. The need to reduce waste was one of the stronger points of the government’s energy review. We shouldn’t let the red herring of nuclear power distract us from that crucial issue. Conserving energy will help us keep the lights on and we are only just beginning to realise how important that is. James Lovelock’s conversion to nuclear energy is largely based on his belief that civilisation will be at risk when we run out of electricity. I think he is wrong about the nuclear solution but the rest of the argument is overwhelmingly convincing. [2023 update: I’m no longer so sure, we might well need nuclear help]
When we started restoring a derelict cottage without mains electricity we found what we had forgotten: that nothing transforms daily life more than being able to switch on the lights. (Well, ok, apart from being able to turn a tap for clean drinking water).
So I tried to tell the BBC how owning a windmill helps you rediscover the wonder of electricity. I think it is interesting that we know how much ‘phantom power’ we waste by leaving the telly or computer on standby, and that the mobile phone charger goes on consuming power unless you switch it off at the wall. And isn’t it extraordinary that an electric kettle takes a 3 kilowatt surge to start heating water – no wonder the power stations go on high alert during ad breaks at peak viewing time.
Such knowledge is power and my mission is to share it.
Knowledge is power?
[Back to the present.] We have much more to share in 2023. Our trusty wind turbine is now supported by solar panels. Between them they generate so much energy in summer the batteries stay well charged and the back-up diesel generator rarely kicks in to provide polluting (but necessary) power during the long daylight hours of our Scottish summer.
Our strange off-grid way of life is a mix of stubborn subsistence and 21st century comfort (indulgence?). In our surrounding woodland we cut and gather firewood to heat water and run radiators. When we first came here a plentiful supply of standing dead elm kept us warm. Now, as we fill the stove with the sad bounty of ash dieback we take heart from (so far) healthy new growth of elm trees. The diesel generator, by the way, is worth a short history of its own and part of our energy evolution over the past 30 years. (In the earliest days we tried to keep our sons entertained with board games by candlelight, then paraffin lamps and finally – wonder of wonders – electric light, telly too, magically conjured with the help of a tough old generator, a bucking brute of a machine which took a firm hand in leather gloves to turn off. It was a brave soul who opted for late night telly and a trip in the dark to the genny shed to strong-arm the off switch.)
But we move on. An increasing array of renewable energy provides enough power to run a dishwasher and washing machine as well as the electricity to route a wifi signal to our inevitable small screen devices. The signal, I should add, comes triumphantly from the top of our oldest, most magnificent Scots pine where a dish was installed by two wonderfully imaginative young engineers (hail TransmitAir ) earlier this year.
There’s more to come.
Ray spends a lot of time up a ladder extending the tractor shed roof to accommodate more solar panels – extending the roof while the sun shines, you might say, except that of course in this record-breaking wet Scottish summer he spends a lot of time sheltering from the rain. But, if all goes well, we aim to generate enough renewable energy to heat water throughout the summer without having to light the woodstove. This year we undertook a lengthy retrofit to our old cottage: the 100 year-old farmworker’s home is now wrapped in 15cm thick wood-fibre external insulation and installed with triple glazed windows. We wake to rooms as warm as they were when we went to bed.
How will it work in the winter? We have yet to find out but the indicators are encouraging – for those of us fortunate enough to be able to afford the not insignificant cost of retrofitting. If BBC Scotland were to interview us about our lifestyle today would they include my regular rant about government negligence? Perhaps I’m being unfair. The BBC’s very good environment correspondent Justin Rowlatt reports on the urgent need to insulate our homes – “Two-thirds of homes, or 19 million, need better insulation, according to government data.”
Knowledge may be power. But money makes it go further.
PS In 2011 I ended the post with a tribute to Radio Magnetic, a small innovative alternative internet radio station, who broadcast my short recording on windpower as one of their Audio Postcards. Radio Magnetic was ahead of its time. Sadly these pioneering pieces are no longer online, but maybe they can be reinstated? Texan Steve Warren’s polemic about George Bush is a classic. As heartwarming and bloodstirring as watching our windmill.