At your service – Part One: Electricity

“There is no internal water supply for the tenants here. One outside tap and sink serve four ground floor houses.”

–Edinburgh Evening News, 3 Nov 1959

Information board about conditions in Edinburgh flats up to the 1960s.

Information board describing the lack of indoor plumbing in Edinburgh flats up to the 1960s. From the People’s Story Museum, Edinburgh.

While there may be much that is wrong about the modern world, we do benefit greatly from those services we classify as ‘utilities’. For most of us these days, if we’re thirsty or need a wash we turn on the tap; if the room we are in is a bit dim, we switch on the light; if we’re cold, we put on a jumper, and another, and another, and then the evil tyrant who has the key to the heating controls lets us turn up the heat. But this wide-spread convenience is a relatively recent development, even in the ‘Western’ world. As late as the 1960s, a quarter of the housing in Edinburgh still lacked a plumbed-in bath (no showers!), and as of the 2001 census 12% of households lacked central heating. A sustainable house doesn’t mean you have to leave these conveniences behind, but it does mean re-thinking what we need and how that is supplied. The first step is of course to minimise one’s demand (for water, electricity, and heat), but in the posts to follow, we will largely focus on our thought process behind how our utilities will be supplied. The demand side is wrapped up in our larger design goals and is a discussion for another day.

All renewable all the time?

At first glance, if you are building a sustainable home the answer seems simple: just install a suitable mix of renewable heat and electricity technologies and go off-grid. Make a stand against the dirty, polluting energy that supplies the UK grid. There are so many renewable options these days! But is off-grid micro-generation always the most sustainable choice? And we want our house to be as simple as possible so that things are less likely to fail and we can fix them if they do.

Electricity

This was the most difficult for us. Our initial desire was to reduce our demand through careful consideration of fittings and appliances, use a mix of micro-generating technologies most suitable to our site, and aim to generate all of our electricity needs without connecting to the National Grid. Yet as it turned out our site is not well suited to electricity generation. It is surrounded by trees, located in Scotland, and without a burn; all significant marks against abundant wind, solar, or micro-hydro electricity. We probably could generate some amount of electricity, maybe even most of our needs. Yet piecing together little bits of renewable electricity that wouldn’t quite meet our needs didn’t sound like the ideal solution.

In addition to the the site not being great for electricity generation, off-grid micro-generation requires batteries. You have to have something to store the electricity generated from when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, so that you can switch the lights/computer/washing machine on when the wind and sun are gone. Batteries are made from acid (which is hazardous) and generally need to be replaced every 5-10 years.1 

Given the above and our goal of an efficient, simple, robust system, off-grid electricity generation simply wasn’t the sustainable or sane answer for us. Especially when we can use a supplier that provides 100% renewably-generated electricity. So for this site and the technologies currently available, a mains connection was the best option for sustainable electricity that also met our requirements.

All is not lost on the local renewables front though. Our plot of land is part of an estate (on the edge of a hamlet) and the estate has land that is good for wind, has burns, and exposed areas that get more sun than we would ever have. And, as a general rule, it is more efficient to generate electricity on a larger scale. Our feeling is that the ideal system would be a community electricity supply that could take advantage of better scale and site selection. This would be a fairly major project to scope out, organise, raise funds for, and implement. At this point, as we got excited about the potential we could see for this scheme, we remembered that we had already set ourselves the fairly major project of building our house. So this is on our ‘to do’ list once we move in. (Along with re-opening a train station at Symington, a small-scale car share scheme and a bike path to Biggar… all in good time.)

So we’ve decided on following as our electricity strategy:

  1. Reduce our demand as much as possible through design, ‘lifestyle’ choices, and appliance selection
  2. Consider micro-renewable electricity generation in the house design but only if it is simple, would operate efficiently, and doesn’t require replacing batteries every few years; if nothing is currently suitable, so be it
  3. Get a connection to the grid and buy our supply from Good Energy.
  4. Once the house is built and we’re living in it, work with the wider community to get community-wide renewable electricity up and running (for which we’ll need that grid connection!)

Please note that we aren’t suggesting micro-renewables are a bad idea. Given an appropriate site, they are definitely worthwhile. And if we can use some, we will. But we want to work with the site we have, not impose a set of unchangeable rules upon it.

^ 1. I did think that maybe we could use the generated electricity to pump water to a holding tank, and then release the water to generate hydro-power on demand. But the efficiencies of such a system on our scale are not sufficient to retain enough of the electricity.