Lent starts

lent wordleWith Lent having started people are expressing ideas of what to give up. In recent years the idea of a carbon fast has emerged. The oil lamp is going to throw its hat in the ring and make a few suggestions under a number of different headings.  We have written a lent study guide to help based around our book.  This can downloaded from the bottom of the post.

The problem with modern Western life is we are addicted to oil and more generally energy. This use is causing rises in temperature, environmental damage and an addiction which sooner or later (and we would argue sooner) is going to have to end.  Cutting this energy use is very difficult because the addiction we have goes beyond energy use into materials.  However,  there are some simple things you can do to make a start at getting it under control this lent covered under a number of different headings…


  • Start by monitoring your use on a weekly basis, you may be surprised by how much you use.  Read your electricity and gas (if you use it) at roughly the same time on the same day each week.  Having done this we turn to ways to save a bit of energy.
  • One suggestion that has been made is to remove a bulb from a prominent light during lent.  There is a danger in our house that if we do that someone will merely leave another light on to replace it.  A better idea if this is a danger is to replace the bulb with a lower energy alternative.  As we have covered on this blog LED’s are now a viable alternative.  Despite their high up front cost they pay for themselves in 1-2 years (at European electricity rates).  I’ve been adding LED bulbs and recently bought a few more.  I did a blog post on LED’s here.  We put some more LED’s last lent and have been adding more since.  Our electricity use has fallen over the last year.
  • Other simple ideas include turning the thermostat down a few degrees or even more radically switching the heating off when its mild.  Don’t switch your heating on an off throughout the day (letting the system cool in between).  The warm-up each time uses a lot of energy.
  • Only fill the kettle with the water you need when you need it.
  • Consider putting in more insulation.  Loft insulation is the easiest and most cost effective to do, but don’t forgot to insulate the loft hatch itself.


  • Drive less!  Don’t use the car for short journeys. Why not walk and pray at the same time starting over lent.  Cycle.  If you do wear a helmet.
  • If you drive make sure your tyres are fully inflated and cut down on the use of air conditioning.
  • Drive carefully and don’t accelerate or brake wildly.


Everything we use either has oil embedded in it in some way either because its derived from oil (plastics) or has been transported long distances.  Stuff and food (see below) are responsible for a lot of carbon emissions.

  • During lent cut down on what you buy.
  • Our homegroup has had several swap, share and donate sessions over the years (here is a short blog entry about it).  These fit in well with lent.
  • Recycle as much as possible.


The modern food system has been described as a means of turning oil into food.  It takes a lot of energy to keep the industrial food system going.

  • The number one “No oil in the lamp” tip is grow your own.  Whilst during lent its probably impossible to bring something to the cropping stage you can plant stuff to harvest over the summer.  If you don’t have any land this is no excuse.  Did you know you can grow Strawberries and potatoes in containers?  Grow lettuce and herbs in window-boxes.
  • Make your own bread (the subject of another blog entry), in fact try to cook everything fresh.
  • Don’t throw food away.
  • Buy local if possible.
  • Cut down on the meat this lent, its better for you and the environment.  Be careful about buying fish though, many species are getting fished out.  This is the big change my family has made starting last lent.  We are about 90% veggie now.

This is a quick run through of some ideas and our book has more and in more detail as does our lent study guide.  Most of all have fun doing this and remember what lent is about.  The lent study guide is here No oil in the lamp lent guide.


PS this is an updated post from last year.

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Peak stuff?

As lent is almost open us it seems appropriate to write about “peak stuff”.   Have we in the west reached peak stuff?  There have been some comments in the last few weeks from business people suggesting we might have reached “peak stuff”, the point where people have have had enough with consumerism, in the sense that we have enough and don’t buy anymore.  A businessmen recently said at a Guardian discussion day.

In the West, we’ve probably hit peak stuff. We talk about peak oil. I’d say we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak home furnishings.

There is no record of Jesus owning anything (something the health and wealth brigade ignore).  However, since traditionally he was a carpenter (in actual fact this is one translation of his father’s profession -earthly father’s profession!) and didn’t start his ministry until he was thirty(ish), logically he must have owned something.  Be this at it may Jesus condemned excessive consumerism in both parables and comments to those he met.  For example Mat 6v19;

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.

Or the parables of the rich young ruler or the farmer who built the bigger barns, or the story of Lazarus… You get the idea.  I personally don’t think Jesus expects to live without any pleasure or comfort in our lives (there are other verses that suggest this), but certainly not to run after stuff and make it our god, which for many people in the West it has become.  Or at least it has up until now?

The question is has our demand for stuff peaked?  We looked at this a bit in our book under green economics.  The data plotted in the figure below at least in part is due to Chris Goodall a former green MEP and it is that we discussed in our book.

peak stuffDomestic material consumption (DMC) is the weight of resources used within the UK, including imports and excluding exports and total material consumption (TMR), the total weight of goods consumed in the UK plus all the resources used to produce them, domestically and overseas.

The interesting thing is the trend and when it starts.  Well before the financial crash.  Of course the data is out of date and at least on cars has been surpassed.  However even this is not necessarily a negative.  People have been generally buying more fuel efficient vehicles, often smaller.  This fits in with falling oil demand in the West.

There is no doubt economic growth has slowed in the Western world.  There are number of possible reasons for this being put forward.  Firstly, developing economies develop and this raises growth.  Second, inequality which rising everywhere within countries slows economic growth.  Third, there is a theory that all the main innovations and inventions have been made.  Fourth there is the classical reason that economists use to explain weak  growth, weak demand.  Lastly but one that rarely gets a mention since it contradicts current economic thinking is perhaps we don’t want as much stuff.  All the data suggests it doesn’t beyond a certain point material goods don’t make us any happier.  Something that fits in with Christianity.


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One thing we have learnt this week -charity begins at home

00002Once again a charity is under the spotlight.  In recent months charities in the UK have been under intense scrutiny.  It been building for some years firstly over chuggers and more recently of begging letters.  After an old lady in Bristol committed suicide after so many letters asking for donations arrived on her doorstep an enquiry was launched.  (In actual fact her family later said that the reason she committed suicide was not due to charity pressure).

Nevertheless some reputational damage has been done, which is unfortunate.  Now comes news of another alleged scandal this time involving one of the “big six” energy companies Eon.  As this blog has reported on over the last few years the increase in prices has has hit the poorest hardest and a variety of people and organisations have started to try to negotiate deals, or in the case of an increasing number of local authorities start their own energy supply companies.  In the case of the charity “Age Concern” or “Age UK” its done a deal with Eon for elderly people to get a reduction.  People are raising concerns on two counts.  Firstly, the deal is not as good as it seems to be and elderly people can do far better elsewhere.  Second, that Eon is allegedly paying quite a low of money for each customer they sign up to the charity.

I don’t know whether they are true, although the press reports that Age UK’s accounts suggest very large payments from energy deals.  Interestingly the charity commission cannot investigate this but OFGEM can and is.  My advice is to shop around, unfortunately this often involves the use of computers.  Get someone else to do it with you who has online access if you do not.


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TV chief goes solar

last subsistance lunchTV chief goes solar.  For those of you don’t know Delia Smith is one of our top TV chiefs.  She is also a Christian.  Its just come to light that she has installed solar panels at her house in the county.  In the renewable energy and climate sceptic Daily Mail no less that put a pro solar video on its webpage below the story.

Delia is its fair to say one of the older TV chiefs.  She has been on TV since the 1970’s but for middle class people her recipe books are almost like the bible.  In our household we use one of them all the time.

As to why she has done it she said.

It may seem a drop in the ocean – but then the ocean is made up of little drops, and we would encourage anyone who can to do the same.

I think anyone who really reflects on the problem would want to play a part and do anything they could to avoid the inevitable catastrophes ahead. Certainly the only effective way to do this is if everyone is together.

Could it be that this very influential TV chief will cause a solar panel boom as she has for various bits of kitchen equipment and foodstuffs?  Maybe this won’t change the world but at the moment seems a a modest good news story.

Full story here.


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One thing we have learnt this week – are we facing power cuts

800px-Shelby_Farms_Solar_Farm_Memphis_TN_2013-02-02_008Is the UK facing power cuts in another decade?  Perhaps the biggest story of this week has almost gone unnoticed.  There could be capacity supply gap of up to 55% in 10 years which will certainly mean power cuts.

A bit of history first.  At one time the electricity system in the UK was state owned.   In those days the majority of the power came from coal with some hydro.  Then in 1956 the world’s first nuclear power station was built.  By the 70’s nuclear power made a sizeable contribution (around a third), with a bit of gas.  In the 70’s natural gas arrived from the North sea.  The first energy crisis hit in 1973 and the miners went on strike at the same time.  I remember the power cuts as a child and sitting in the dark and its made me concerned about energy issues ever since.

After the miners strike there was a wholesale switch to gas (I remember this at school) we used to play on the pile of coal and get chased off by the janitor- then one day it wasn’t there…  Mrs Thatcher swept to power in 1979, took on the miners and privatised the electricity industry.  In the 90’s there was a dash to gas powered generation, this cut carbon emissions, but made us dependent on the stuff.  At the same time the first wind farms started appearing.  Around 2000 the oil price started its increase towards its 2008 peak and a heap of subsidies for renewables started appearing including in 2010 the feed in tariff.  At the same time as offshore and onshore wind started appearing, older plants (coal/gas/nuclear) started closing.  We had record capacity supply surplus in 2003 but its been dropping ever since and is now about 1%.  North sea gas went into decline and imports were more expensive.  Electricity and gas prices soared.  In 2013 the Tory led government introduced an energy act.  This has two parts “Contracts for difference” this a sort of market led auction of low carbon generation and “Capacity Market” which is the same type of thing but auctioning off future and current generation.

The challenges we face are these.

  • The Capacity Market isn’t working.  Even very large future power prices are insufficient to incentivise new capacity.
  • The whole structure of the grid has changed.  There is now around 10Gwp of solar and at least 9Gwp of wind on the system which was never designed to cope with decentralised electricity.  The distribution system is overloaded in parts of the country and needs upgrade.
  • The government has cut carbon capture and storage support and announced all coal fired power stations will close by 2025.
  • New nuclear stands on the brink of collapse but in any case could not be built in time.

What to do to avoid power cuts?

A dash for gas?

Difficult, we would need to build 3 gas fired power stations a year.  We would also end up importing the gas.  For all the hype about fracking there is too much opposition and gas prices are too low to justify it economically.  Also in Poland it didn’t technically work, so we cannot be sure we can actually recover any.

Energy efficiency?

Again this is a big ask.  In principle we have 10 years but of course this a process not an event.  5.5% a year of a fall in electricity demand is possible but bigger than most falls in recent years.  This is one area where history is on our side the trend on energy use is down.  However if electric car sales carry on increasing as I wrote last week this will reverse.


We could put enough generating capacity in place easily to cover the shortfall (notationally).  However without energy storage is would lead to problems.  Luckily it looks battery prices are set to plunge over this period, although I don’t think we should just use this technology.  Whilst offshore wind is expensive costs are falling and its a order of magnitude  cheaper than the money offered in the auctions according to rumours.  Solar farms are going ahead despite the complete cut in subsidy.  This also against the direction the government is going in.


A lot more of these are planned but not enough to make up the shortfall.  Will help though.


Cannot be built in time.


Writing this makes it seem a bit less scary.  With a bit more gas, using less energy and renewables with energy storage and the use of interconnectors we can close the gap and avoid power cuts.  However, time is not on our side and the government seems complacent and that is most worrying of all…  Most of all don’t expect much of a cut in electricity prices but sizeable increases.


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Electric car sales soar

Nissan_Leaf_002Electric car sales soared in 2015 (albeit from a very low level).  This was in the news the other day.  Why have electric car sales soared as the oil price has plunged?  Not sure but it must have something to do with environmental concerns rather than economics.  As we wrote in our book even with higher oil prices the economics weren’t that great.  That said what we wrote is as we predicted slightly out of date.  The range of the cars is increasing and the costs of purchase falling.  This will improve the economics dramatically and make up for some of the fall in oil prices.  The number of charging points is also increasing.

The government has not cut the UK’s grant scheme for electric cars unlike it has every other green scheme.  Indeed electric cars are to be allowed to use bus lanes.  This maybe because of the problem of air quality in our cities which has already been a major issue this year.  There are many that think that electric cars are not the answer to urban pollution.  I disagree with their findings.  A simple calculation taking the increased efficiency of the vehicles over fossil fuel versions into account shows this.  The urban pollution problem has got so bad in so many cities that even using polluting power plants elsewhere has got to be better (although there could be a problem for those immediately around) and its largely caused by diesel vehicles.    Besides there is a huge shift to renewables going on.  However, the other criticisms I agree with.  We made these and others in our book.  If electric car sales keep increasing at this rate they will be a major part of the market in a few years.  Something that is to be welcomed at least in part.


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One thing we have learnt this week – Fuel poverty

IMG_0761Is fuel poverty why one elderly person is dying every 7 minutes in the UK?  The latest figures for England and Wales suggest 120,000 people have died of cold weather over the last 4 winters.  Taking the average deaths in the summer and winter months and taking the difference suggests an excess of winter deaths.  The interesting thing is the further north you go the lower this excess is.  So in Spain and Portugal the winter death rate is far higher than the UK whilst Norway is a lot lower and Finland has no difference in winter death rates at all.

Age UK think the problem is fuel poverty.  The problem is energy costs particularly of gas have soared.  In 2002 I was paying 1.1p a kWh for gas now I’m paying over 5p.  And our energy costs are still not the most expensive in Europe.  Elderly people cannot afford to heat their houses to the minimum of 16°C for all rooms at 18-21°C for living rooms.   In Nordic countries buildings are very well insulated.  The labour government had several initiatives to tackle this problem, one of which was the warmfront scheme.  This seems to have been pretty successful, having insulated 2.3 million homes.  They also introduced the winter fuel payment, an extra amount of money given to all pensioners to help with their fuel bills.  The coalition government did away with the first scheme introducing the “green deal”, a market based scheme which involved taking out loans.  This bombed with an uptake rate of less than 20,000 homes.  Its been scrapped by the new Tory government, but nothing has yet replaced it.  Although the energy companies still offer free insulation etc. to those who want it.  The problem is considerable with 4.5 million people still living in fuel poverty in the UK.

The question is what to do about it?  Short of Tradable Energy Quotas and a citizens income, both of which I support but are not on the political radar then the problem needs attacking at both ends.  We need to raise people’s incomes and insulate their homes.  On the raising incomes pensioners have been well treated by governments in recent years and its hard to see pensions rising significantly enough to deal with the problem.  This leaves somehow richer bill payers subsidising poorer bill payers in some way.  This happens to a certain extent in some ways already.  The energy company I’m signed up with makes everyone pay the same so there is no direct debit discount or higher rates for those on pre-paid meters.  The free energy efficiency measures provided by the energy companies are also subsidised by everyone- which in effect means those who are better off.  This cross subsidy idea whilst attractive to me would be on a more formal basis difficult to administer and has civil liberties implications.

The other necessity is for energy efficiency measures.  The problem here is that even with the rise in energy prices most energy efficiency measures still take a very long time to payback.  This is one reason why the green deal failed (that the interest rates on the loans).  Double glazing is likely to almost at the stage of paying for itself if the lifetime is taken at 20 years but really the only form of heat based energy efficiency measure that pays its money back in next to no time is loft insulation.  This leaves us with a problem that a market based scheme is not going to work.  The measures need some subsidy and the best way of doing that is by the energy companies.  Its looks like we should go back to warmfront.


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Oil price – how low can it go?

How low can the oil price go?  This is the question on many peoples lips at the moment.  After an extraordinary 15 year upward trend interrupted only by the financial crisis the oil price has been falling for over a year and currently shows no signs of stopping.  An oil price of $10/barrel looks quite possible.  A price at which almost no oil can be removed from the ground at a profit.  Is peak oil dead or merely sleeping?

I heard Sir Ian Wood of the Wood group interviewed on BBC radio 4 today programme.  He was quite hawkish on the oil price.  What he said was something we tend to forget (I had) and that is masked by the current production glut.  That is underlying production is falling at 10% a year.  The graph shows what this would mean going forward from 2014 production.

oil declineOf course that assumes absolutely no increases in production, which is unrealistic, nevertheless it does show us the challenge of replacement.   Last year only non-OPEC and OECD countries (excluding Europe) managed significant increases in production, all other regions were in decline or production increases were minimal.  The overall global increase in production was 2.3%.  Rarely (if ever) has global oil production achieved a 10% in a year .  Of course at the moment shale oil has arrived on the scene and there is plenty of oil swilling around.  Going forward though there are plus and minuses on the oil price which make it difficult to call.

On the doveish side…

  • Oil and gas demand is falling in OECD countries and may have peaked in China.
  • The global economy and particularly the Chinese economy looks terrible.
  • A climate change agreement was reached in Paris which should cut demand over the medium term.
  • Electric car sales are soaring – albeit from very low levels.
  • Iran is increasing production
  • There are huge stocks of oil building up.  Even if there is a crisis in production its effects will be lessened by these stocks.

On the hawkish side…

  • Apart from OPEC conventional oil fields and regions are almost all in decline.
  • Demand in some parts of the world is still increasing (or would be if the global economy wasn’t tanking).  Watch out for Africa and India as they get wealthier.  China’s car demand cannot have peaked.
  • There have to be questions over OPEC reserves.
  • US shale oil production is set to peak in 2018.

Where is the oil price going, who knows? but peak oil is only sleeping since there are obviously geological limits to production.


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One thing we have learnt this week – Aramco float

Is an Aramco float on the cards?  According to its website it is.  As we have reported on several times over the last year on this blog the Saudis have a problem.   The oil price fall has hit their economy very hard. In addition they are fighting a messy proxy war with Iran in Yemen which they show no signs of winning.  Finally due to the execution of Saudi cleric Nimr Baqr al-Nimr recently tensions with Iran have burst into the open.

What to do?  They have started cutting public spending and government subsidies hard but show no sign of limiting production of oil for reasons we have outlined before.  An Aramco float could be a way of raising very large amounts of money.  Potentially trillions of dollars.

There is a problem though.  For a number of decades many people don’t think that many OPEC countries have been entirely truthful about their reserves.  Look at these reserve figures in the figure shown below from our book.  In the mid eighties many OPEC countries miraculously “found” vast reserves.

chapter1 figure 3If Saudi Arabia is serious about an Aramco float even of 5%, as is rumoured they are going to be transparent about how much is left.  Its been thought for some years that they maybe have a lot less oil left in the ground than is officially claimed.


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Ground mounted solar

800px-Shelby_Farms_Solar_Farm_Memphis_TN_2013-02-02_008Don’t let the the title “Ground mounted solar” put you off.  Sometimes you find the weirdest most improbable story out there you have to run it.  This is one and as a disclaimer I should add I didn’t find the story but my brother did somehow.  I know Americans read my blog, I apologise but these stories only seem to come out of the US.

A small town (Woodland) in North Carolina US has recently rejected a Ground mounted solar farm.  Nothing unusual there but its the apparent reasons at a public meeting to oppose them given that have made the story go viral.

They include;

” the solar farms would suck up all the energy from the sun and businesses would not come to Woodland”

“that photosynthesis, which depends upon sunlight, would not happen and would keep the vegetation from growing.”

“no one could tell her that solar panels didn’t cause cancer”

Some people have written more charitable explanations of what was said but on the face of it it does seem to show the most incredible ignorance.  I do have some issues with ground mounted solar, but not all of them are expressed in the links above.

Firstly, there have to be concerns over the aesthetics of filling green areas with large numbers of panels.  This is one of the main arguments used against ground mounted solar and I share some of these concerns.  There are developments that find a way round these problems.  The use of wasteland, old quarries or old airfields have been made in the UK without any loss of amenity.  Putting solar farms in areas surrounded by trees so they are invisible to those around is another option.

Another potential drawback is we are setting up another competition in land between fuel and food.  Its not possible to use land for solar farms to grow crops unlike with wind farms.  It is possible to graze sheep or keep poultry around solar panels.  We need to watch this.

If solar is in large farms then there will be resistance losses getting the power to where its needed which by and large is not going to be where its generated.  Its not a “deal breaker”, but is worth bearing in mind.

One criticism I don’t accept is that of cancer.  The actual panels in their finished state are not going to cause cancer.  However, I do accept the argument over their manufacture in the link above.  There are two counter arguments to this.  Firstly, worker protection is important and suppliers of panels here along with us who buy them should ensure those making them are treated safely and fairly.  This not an argument against solar PV but for workers rights.  Second people who make this criticism don’t mention that PV’s are semiconductors.  We are surrounded by droves of semiconductors, I’m writing this using many now.  I hear little concern over semiconductors in phones, computers and just about every other device going.

In my view the best place for PV (which I love and have fitted on my house) is on a roof.  Aesthetically its better and the power ends up where its needed most.  However I’m torn, there is no doubt we need to get off fossil fuels as fast as possible for peak oil and climate change reasons and ground mounted solar has helped bring the price of solar down.  There are drawbacks and silliness can sometimes help see these.  It looks like even the UK ground mounted solar is now at grid parity so this problem is not going to go way.




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