I’ve been meaning to write a post on bees for a while.  This week I read an article that said recent research suggested that bees were not visiting bee friendly plants as much as was thought.  This post (mainly pictures) will concentrate on bumble bees since I rarely see a honey bee in my garden nowadays.   This is part of an ongoing problem with bee numbers.  Honeybee populations have declined massively in recent years.  A wide variety of things have been blamed from nuclear power to climate change to insecticides.  But certainly some of the same factors affect bumblebees which have also declined in numbers.

Bees are important since they a systematic pollinators.  By that I mean they work a plant over.  Other insects wasps, flies, beetles and hover flies will pollinate plants but visit flowers on a random basis.  Hence the importance of these insects.  Even plants that are self fertile do better with pollination.  We get 5-6 different types of bumblebee in our garden as well as some types of solitary bee.  Here are some of them.  I’ve been trying to photograph them, which is not easy.

Bumblebees build small nests often using grass and other materials.  They contain up to about 200 insects.  They often nest in roofs (we have had at least one).  It forbidden to to destroy the nests under UK law and they rarely cause trouble unlike wasps or honeybees  where the nest gets very large and can damage the building.  Bumblebees can sting many times (in fact the only bee I’ve been stung by was a bumblebee) but are very none aggressive.

Bombus terrestris, buff tailed bumblebee (worker)

cuckoo beeBombus hypnorum, the tree bumblebee queen.  This species has benefited from climate change and is now found in Southern Scotland.

Bombus hypnorum the Tree bumblebeeBombus pascuorum, common Carder Bee

common carder bee

These are most common one I see, they seem to go in stages in that one particular species works one plant at at time.

The bees visit all the flowers in the garden that the article above says they don’t.  One of their favourites are the thistle which I’ve photographed them on above since they have to work at getting the pollen on this.  They also love common sage, a type of salvia from south Africa that no insect seems to be able obtain anything from but they try, Lavender, Oregano, echinops.  They quite like nasturtiums and inula.

I hope this short blog has given you a bit of insight into these important insects which we rely on so much and need all the help they can get.


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One thing we have learnt this week – biochar from poop


Reaction vessel where faeces is converted to biochar research in the US.

Biochar was seen as one of the miracle cures for climate change nearly 10 years ago.  Like so many eco solutions greatly exaggerated claims were made about its ability to solve the climate crisis.  George Monbiot who hates all miracle cures (apart from nuclear power) makes a justified critique here.  Nevertheless even he conceded that it may have a niche role.  In Kenya one of the local water companies has found a way of turning poo into a fuel.  I call it biochar since it does contain other plant based products.  If you are eating turn way now.

The local water company collects poop from latrines and septic tanks.  Then it dries it in the sun.  Then it its it to 300°C and adds sawdust.  Finally molasses is added to the product as a binder.

There are 3 big problems this product helps to mitigate.  First, one major problem in the developing world is people cutting down trees to make fuel for cooking (not the only reason of course that trees are felled).  One of the big wins and easy ways of cutting emissions would be to stop deforestation.

Related to this is the use of paraffin or open fires to cook on.  Both create respiratory disease problems due to the release of particulates and paraffin obviously has a oil dependency. This product is being sold at a competitive price with these.

The last problem is that of health due to the spread of faecal bacteria.

One claim made about biochar is that its carbon negative (if you read the Monbiot article above you can see this could vary).  This product cannot be carbon negative since it involves heating to high temperatures and the addition of plant based products.  Nevertheless it seems to me press a number of the right buttons.  Another alternative that is going on all over the developing world is the use of poo to make biogas.



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Energy Africa

DSCN1669Energy Africa – there is a boom going on in small scale renewable energy in Africa.  As this blog has covered TEARFUND have a campaign to get the UK government to fund very small scale off grid solar power.  I was poking around the Department for International Development’s (DFID) website the other day for another reason and came across a large number of projects relating both to off grid stuff (almost all solar) and some on grid renewables (also solar with other technologies undisclosed).

The programme for small scale solar is called Energy Africa.  This somehow hopes to lever in private cash to help provide householders with small off-grid systems.  As I put in the post linked to above its hard how to see how this will happen since this is a classic market failure.  That is something that will create a large number of private sector jobs installing and maintaining the equipment as well as other jobs from other businesses that flow from this.  However its difficult to see how the private sector can make money from providing the systems themselves.  (Mobile phones in particularly Kenya does off a model however, although the investment by individuals would need to be bigger.)

Sierra Leone Somalia, Ghana, Malawi and Rwanda are all signed up.  One criticism of the scheme is that Africans need on grid electricity.  This is true at some point but at the moment providing that would be vastly expensive.  By starting here you build capacity knowhow and as hopefully small systems expand you create bit by bit the backbones of a grid system.


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One thing we have learnt this week – tourism pressures

electric bus island of the monksThere has been a lot in the news this week over tourism pressures.  From protests and even attacks in various parts of Spain to huge pressures on the Isle of Skye and continuing problems in Venice we do seem to have reached some kind of tipping point as far as the locals in very popular tourist destinations are concerned.  Controversy abounds over Airbnb and the tax take from its rentals and pressure its putting on local services and even places for locals to live.  in the Balearic islands people who rent out there rooms without a licence will face an enormous euro 400,000 fine.  There are questions over the trickle down effect of money reaching the locals and of course of the sustainability of travel due to climate change.

I cannot claim to be anything other than part of the problem of tourist pressures.  I have been to some of the top tourist destinations in the past (including Venice, which is under huge pressure).  I also live in a country that is a top 10 and in a city that is one of the most popular destinations in the world with a huge international festival on at the moment.  I see change around me.  My near neighbours are doing Airbnb in their house and short term lets opposite.  They are doing nothing illegal to the best of my knowledge.  The traffic today seemed far worse cycling home, tourists?  Maybe.  Despite the pressures I don’t feel my adopted home is being ruined by tourism.  Where there are problems they are due to planning decisions made by the council for other reasons.  The local economy has to benefit to an extent due to local renting out their rooms and the proliferation of restaurants.  What to do about tourism pressures?

Firstly, providing people are not behaving illegally then we should welcome tourists to where we live.  Violence and intimidation have no place in what is supposed to be a meeting of minds and cultures.

Second, its up to us to make sure by pressuring governments that companies and individuals pay their fair share of tax.  This is course easier in your home country and in democracies.  There is an argument for restricting Airbnb’s and the like through the planning system.

Third, we need to green up transport (the Dutch bus above being a very small example) as far as possible.

Last, we cannot say that Chinese or Indians cannot travel any more than anyone else (most tourists where I live are white anyway).

Ultimately we all need to travel more slowly and less often.  However I recognise the above are weak and partial solutions to what is becoming a major global issue.  We live in a very narcissistic culture and with rising middle class in the developing world these tourism pressures are only going to increase.  Any ideas welcome


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UK solar potential

954838_204501379701698_1765426126_nWhat is the UK solar potential?  That is what I’ve been asking myself over the last few weeks as I have written some of the recent blog posts.  I revisited Renewable Energy Without the Hot Air by the late great David McKay (who my brother knew quite well).  He says the theoretical upper UK solar potential is 1260GW (actually this is the quantity of capacity needed to produce 50kWh/day/person).  He reckons this is 5% of the UK’s land area and regards this as almost inconceivable.  But is it?  Quite a lot about McKay’s book is out of date.  Offshore wind power and solar costs and capacity are much more favourable than he envisaged.  Also population has risen so getting to that figure is actually more difficult.  Getting the actual theoretical UK solar potential is actually quite challenging but I found a recent blog post that suggests that all our needs could be met with just 1% of the land area.  So who is right?  Lets have a look at the maths – I’m writing this with a completely open mind and I am going to be very conservative.  I have made the assumption that we will use domestic roofs and commercial roofs only.  Actually most of the UK’s capacity is in fields.  I don’t have a huge problem with that but think that 5% would be excessive if this was where the systems were.  Other non-domestic building types have really yet to take off as far as solar is concerned.


The first thing we need to think about is power output.  In the UK I have assumed an average of 750kWh per 1kWp of capacity.  This is on the low side but takes into account using non south facing roofs.

The next thing is to think about the roof size.  The Energy Saving Trust have done some work on this.  They say the most common size of installation (2015) was 4kW which takes just under 29m2.  I find this surprising since I see very few installations of this size.  I am going to assume an average of 2.

How many domestic roofs are there? The BBC say 25 million in 2004.  However 17% are tenements or flats.  Although putting PV on some of these is not impossible and there are such systems its definitely more complicated so I’ve assumed none do.  This is 20.75 million

Put it all together.

= 750 x 2 x 20.75 x106 = 31125000000kWh.  A huge figure.  However its more helpful to think in terrawatt hours (TWh) which is the country scale consumption unit in a year.  Divide by 1000 puts it in MWh and then by another 1000 puts it in GWh finally another division by 1000 puts it in TWh.

so this by my reckoning gives us 31.25TWh a year.   This is a lot of electricity but not more than 10% of current yearly demand.


How about “commercial*” roof space?  DECC (now renamed) suggested in 2014 there is 250,000 hectares of south facing roofs in the UK (funnily enough this is about 1% of UK land area).  This is 2.5 x 109 m2.  Divide this by 29m2 which give you the number of 4Kw systems you could fit on this roof.

Again put it all together.

2.5 x 109 / 29 = 86206896 x 4kW.

This would generate in a year = 86206896 x 4 x 750 = 258620688000kWh.

Again divide by 1000 three times.

= 258TWh.

Adding these two figures almost gives what we do use now.

So at the moment we could meet all our needs (almost) in theory.  McKay was right meeting a large amount of our future needs from solar would be a struggle when you take into account heating and transport without putting a lot of stuff in fields.  However I would add the commercial roofs do not include other directions of which East and West work pretty well, this could almost triple the above figure (think about it).  In addition PV modules are are getting steadily more efficient.  On an individual system basis this is just significant but with well over 100 million panels would help somewhat.  No one is suggesting that we should try to run our entire energy system off solar.  That would be crazy and lead to a huge number of problems however solar can make a huge contribution to our energy scene and we have really only just scratched the surface of its potential.  Please feel free to correct my maths or method

* includes government buildings such as hospitals MOD etc.


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One thing we have learnt this week – electric dreams again

charging point for electric carsElectric dreams again.  The grid is changing and our means of transport is also changing (or at least what powers it).  The problem is a fully electric road system will lead to a big increase in electricity demand.  Possibly as high as 88TWh a year or 8GW at peak demand times.  That’s a lot of electricity, about 25% of what we use now.  Charging all the possible cars will be an issue since the rapid  chargers use a lot of electricity so require a 3 phase supply.  Even if they don’t use rapid charging then demands will be high as in theory everyone comes home in their car and puts it on to trickle charge overnight.  A 50Kw battery is some night-time/evening demand compared with now spread over 8 hours (do the math!).  The easiest way would be to reduce our driving as George Monbiot suggested this week and we wrote about in our book.  Electric cars are not a solution to many of the problems caused by driving.  However as I wrote last week at the moment this seems unlikely.  At the moment as few as 7 cars charging in a neighbourhood could cause a brownout according to the green alliance.

A number of solutions have been proposed.  One obvious one is to combine home battery storage with charging your car.  So during the day when you are out at work your battery system is charged from the solar panels on your roof.  When you get home and plug the car in then this is used to charge your car.  Advantages; less strain on the grid.  Problem you need a pretty big battery system to fill a car and there will be other calls on the batteries as well such as lights/cooking/heating etc.  A major problem of this type of system is winter.  Electricity demand is at its highest when solar production is at its highest.  Nevertheless such an idea will mitigate the grid strain issue to an extent.

The second solution is smart charging and involves the heavy use of smart meters.  When your electricity is cheap then your car would charge.  The problem is many people would overrule this since they would want their car charged this relies on a lower more laid back approach to car use.

The third solution is using the car as grid storage.  The opposite of above.  Your car would be called upon to power the grid when power is short.  The government have see-sawed on their approach to this one.   Ten years ago they were keen on it, then they went off the idea, now they are keen on it.  The advantages are twofold.  With millions of electric cars there will be storage available on a vast scale.  All funded by the consumer.  Second if you could persuade lots of people to forego their cars at any one time then congestion would be less.  The problems are also twofold.  You have to persuade people to do this and to do so will take large amounts of money, pushing up power prices at peak demand times.

In practical terms though grid reinforcement is going to be required on a mammoth scale.  If electric heating takes off and we go totally electric we will need enough generating capacity for about another 800TWh of power a year, an even bigger challenge.


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UK electricity prices are on the march (again)

DSC_2159UK electricity prices are on the march (again).  A storm of protest has broken forth today as one of the UK big six British Gas is raising electricity but not gas prices by up to 12.5%.   All the other energy companies (almost) have stuck up prices over the last year and there are concerns they may follow again.  Everyone is blaming everyone else.   British Gas blames network upgrades, smartmeters and renewables for increase.  The government say its not their imposed programmes but the companies fault.

As per usual its very hard for us customers to disentangle what is going on with UK electricity prices.  We can draw a number of general points though.

  • British gas has to be fair to them not put prices up for 4 years.
  • The eco stuff is onerous particularly the energy efficiency programmes.  The small providers are exempted below a certain number of customers.  These companies try to stay below this limit (something like 120,000) for this reason.  The British Gas boss wanted a level playing field this morning on the radio with his competitors not being exempted*.  However the big six make big profits and the limit is still fairly low.  Its there for a reason to encourage competition by not loading too much stuff on new market entrants.  The eco effeciency stuff is really important and is the only way of limiting prices in the future.
  • This brings us to competition.  Privatisation has not worked out in keeping prices low as was promised.  It did at first with the companies getting the benefits of the “dash to gas”.  Yes you can blame external factors such as the run down of UK gas supplies and a switch to renewables and huge increase in the oil price in 2008. (Its still surprising how much this last factor has affected electricity prices.)  Nevertheless we were told competition would work and its not working very well (although the small suppliers are somewhat cheaper).  The different tariffs and ranges thereof are labyrinthine.
  • One thing British Gas are not blaming increased UK electricity prices is the wholesale price of electricity.  This has fallen by their own admission.  With 25% of power coming from renewable sources it would seem unfair not to give renewables credit in helping to hold prices down.  Once a renewable asset is in then the output is pretty much fixed and predictable going forward.  Gas prices meander about all over the place.

The government were promising some kind of cap in their manifesto.  The small majority means this like so may other promises has been trashed.  It looks like this problem is here to stay.  The only mitigating factors are British Gas are going to subsidise their poorest customers a bit to protect them from the increase.   Buy our book which has energy efficiency tips in it.


* he also said he wanted the government to legislate to get rid of standard variable tariffs although this begs the question as to why British Gas don’t voluntarily get rid of them themselves.

P.S. I must be on of the few people in the UK whose gas and electricity prices will have fallen.  However this until December and is to keep me with my energy company after they have switched back office suppliers.  I’m expecting a big increase then.

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One thing we have learnt this week- Electric dreams

Electric dreams!  Over the last week or so there have been some big energy announcements on storage, solar, electric cars and energy demand. These all fit together into one seamless whole – electric dreams.

First the electric cars. The UK government announced that all conventional cars will be outlawed by 2040. Or will they? Hybrids will be allowed and these use diesel or petrol. 2040 is a long way off as well. This announcement was making people think they are doing something about particulates. Nevertheless with other governments around the world making the same kind of moves the direction of travel is clear (pun intended). The end of oil for road transport is in sight.

Electric cars and energy demand are clearly linked though. If all road transport goes electric then electricity demand will rise. The question is by how much? As it happens both the Green Alliance and National grid have been having a think about this very recently. Wood Mckenzie think it could be about 3%, National grid come up with a confusing range of figures but think the figure could be up to 88TWh by 2050. Where is this power going to come from?

First we need to remember there is beginning to be at least some slack in the system. Electricity demand is falling at the moment due to LED’s and more efficient white goods. Our household is typical of this trend at the moment our energy use is falling fast (see graph below). This will buffer some of the demand, although against this there is a huge program of power station closures.

long term importIn addition we don’t know how much people will use their cars, or whether we will even own cars in the future (with autonomous vehicles).  There has to be a suspicion though that without some kind of road charging or some other big change in society the high ownership of cars will continue.  For the last 60-70 years car ownership has become embedded in the culture and will be harder to shift than some proponents of autonomous vehicles think.

Another unknown is how the electric car technology will improve.  National grid assume it will but don’t really talk about their methodology (they do talk a lot about rapid charging technology).  Obviously as range improves so will need for charging them.

Next week I will look at the implications of all this.


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One thing we have learnt this week – nuclear waste and brexit

Is nuclear waste about to become a bargaining chip in brexit?   The UK government this has threatened to send a load of nuclear waste back to various EU countries if the UK is not allowed to “have its cake and eat it” over Euroatom.

Some background, although its very very complicated and I’m not going to go into any detail.  Over the years at least three different re-processing plants have been built at Sellafield.  All of them have tried to pick up foreign business which means nuclear waste being shipped to the UK from other countries.  All have ended in absolute or relative failure.  The Thorp re-processing plant opened in 1994 after taking almost 20 years to build.  In 2005 there was a disastrous leak of radioactive material (internally luckily) which had been going on for months but was not detected.  This plant seems to be operational again.

In 2001 another plant the MOX (mixed oxide plant) opened.  This was to re-process uranium and plutonium from light water reactors.  Again it was a failure only processing a tiny amount of its capacity.  It closed after the Japanese disaster in 2011 but has reopened again taking Japanese waste.  The pilot plant for this facility was involved in controversy when records were falsified.    This meant that Japanese waste had to be returned from Japan to the UK.

Nuclear expert David Lowry says we are still acquiring nuclear waste from other European countries.  Much of the waste comes from Japan.  That which is sitting here from Europe is doing so due to British failure.  We took it as a commercial venture. Waste is expensive, dangerous and a security risk to shift.  Are we going to carry out our threat?  Very unlikely and to do so means total failure of the entire brexit negotiations.


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Travel by train

20170530_140510A few years ago Neil asked me to guest write a blog post about my wife and I’s decision to travel by train on holiday to Belgium after reading “No Oil in the Lamp” (original post here: So when my wife and I made plans recently to go on holiday to Paris, we recalled our trip to Belgium and decided to go by Eurostar again. The difference being that now we would have an 18 month old accompanying us! How would we get on travelling with a toddler while still trying to be environmentally conscious on holiday?

First a bit of background: I grew up in the US where train travel was not (and still is not) a commonly used mode of transportation for longer journeys or holidays. Car or airplane travel are often assumed to be the only two reliable modes of transportation in many parts of the country. So our initial Eurostar trip to Belgium came out of a desire to take holiday in a different way, one which consumed less oil and would cost our world less. This time around, we were still motivated to make choices that were kind to our planet, and we also felt that the train travel would be easier on our daughter and on us as parents. Having flown with her previously, we had already experienced that airplane travel was something to be survived with a young child, rather than enjoyed!

Our experience travelling by train was highly positive and enjoyable for myself, my wife, and our daughter (and also therefore, I imagine, those sitting around us!). In addition to the environmental benefits of our journey, our comfort level as a family was far greater than it would have been on an airplane. Having more room at our seats and the ability to move around our car and between cars helped everyone feel a bit more comfortable and at ease. On our Eurostar journey in particular, it was easy to get up and walk around with our little one, despite travelling at high speeds. Our daughter enjoyed seeing (and calling to) the many sheep, cows, and horses we could see outside the train on journeys to and from London. On our return journey we were able to ride in a newer Eurostar train, which has a redesigned cabin (shown in picture) and can travel up to 10% faster than their older trains.

20170606_104343During our holiday in Paris, we found it quite easy to continue making eco-friendly decisions for our daily wants and needs. There are many opportunities to buy local and organic foods at supermarkets and pop-up markets around town. Our location in the city allowed us to either walk to most places or make use of Paris’s excellent metro system. And while we did have to forego our cloth nappies for disposables for the week, we were able to easily find nappies and wipes that were produced with minimal chemicals or additives. I had assumed that being out of our normal everyday life would mean that our eco-options would be reduced or diminished, and I was pleasantly surprised for that not to be the case!

One sobering moment while visiting Paris is that the same week we were there on holiday, my home country the USA withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement signed in 2015. It was heart-breaking to hear the news, and being in Paris that same week gave the announcement a greater sense of gravity and depth. I am very grateful that no one we encountered in our time there openly criticised us for our home country’s decision! While we wait and hope for the USA to reconsider its position on fighting climate change, we are glad that we were able to fight future climate change through the small choices we made over the week.

Overall we loved our holiday to Paris, and particularly enjoyed making use of train travel to get to and from our destination in Paris. I would highly recommend train travel with little ones and would especially prefer it over airplane travel. While we have done our best as new parents to maintain daily life practices that involve cleaner, less wasteful living, it is still a learning process with plenty of missteps and the need for grace for ourselves. I hope that someday we are able to effectively share with our daughter our beliefs and values about God’s call to us to care for creation. Perhaps by then she will be able to read Andy and Neil’s next book, “No Oil in the Lamp – For Kids”! But I am grateful that we will have great memories as a family together on holiday from this trip, and I hope that we can continue to learn how to enjoy time away together while also caring for our world.



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