Housing and Energy tours January 2012

We are very lucky to have arrived in this area just as the local Transition Town groups are reforming. So many local people are interested in renewable and low-cost energy solutions for their homes it’s brilliant and even better, we are almost out-weighed by the number of sustainable energy installations already up and running within a stones throw of the Forest Garden!

When we joined the group late last year, we were somewhat curious about how energy tours in January might go (since we’d arrived, everyone we’d met had enthused about how cold last Winter was – getting snowed in for weeks that kind of thing). However the tour of renewable energy installations was arranged for two afternoons in January.

One of the roofs at the Ceridwen Centre with Photovolatic cells

Every photovoltaic cell installation needs a dragon I think

First up the wood chip boiler, photovoltaic cell and solar water installations that heat and power the Ceridwen Centre and home for owner Roger and his family. Luckily Roger was able to get a grant for half of the money for the wood chip boiler and system – this was many years ago. Although the wood-chip system is supposed to be able to run with minimal person time, Roger finds that he needs to check on it twice (perhaps even three) times a day to ensure that it is all running smoothly. During the frank and honest conversations we are used to in the group (no sales pitch here), Roger admitted that if he were to make his choice of boiler again he’d go for a log fired system – a lot less hassle, they need filling up with wood just once a day, which granted means that someone always needs to be around, but then someone always is around. Luckily for the group we would see a log fired system in the next tour.

I don’t think there was any space left on Roger’s roofs for any more kit! Even on this dull day the meters were reading electricity and hot water being generated.

Wind Turbine at Mair's Bakehouse

Naked wind turbine at Mair's Bakehouse

Then on to Mair’s Bakehouse a totally off-grid organic bread bakery in the middle of nowhere. I thought we were isolated until we turned off the road to this old farmhouse! Rick runs his home and bakehouse using just wind energy from the smallish turbine and wood to fire up the (huge) brick oven.

The wind turbine’s cover had blown off during the extreme weather events of the days leading up to the tour (it had landed intact near the edge of the woods in the distance) and Rick had yet to put it back on. Rick is very pleased with his turbine, if I remember correctly it is about 12 years old and hardly needs any maintenance. It steadily charges a large bank of batteries near the house with 2kw, and a regulator sorts all of the energy requirements to the house.

One of the mixing machines in the bakehouse (fondly named “Batty” after a character in television series Last of the Summer Wine) needs a massive amount of energy to get it started and Ricks installation deals with it very well – it kicks out a huge 11kw peak which sets Batty off nicely.

The bread oven is heated with wood lit directly in the oven, which heats the bricks which radiate the heat back out to the 60 or so loaves that can be cooked in the oven at any one time. I was a little disappointed with the oven but only because it didn’t have any bread in it, I was so hoping to be able to try some. I’ve heard that Rick’s bread is amazing, it’s sold in a lots places around west Wales – wholefood stores and local producer markets, but I’ve yet to get to any before it’s sold out! Rick is planning on a new delivery service this year, so perhaps that will be my best bet.

Where the leat meets the river

The turbine is that way! Notice the three sluice gates - only one is open.

Last on this tour was a water powered turbine at Tony Woodman’s place. The big thing about this turbine is that it is fed by a leat from the river and produces enough energy to run the house and metal workshop. Tony created the dragon above the entrance to the castle at Newcastle Emlyn (to name just one).

With a constant water flow from the river, Tony is in a very fortunate position. It’s just a four meter drop from the leat to the turbine, but that is enough for his energy requirements. He regulates the amount of water in the leat by opening and closing three sluice gates where the water is caught at the river, and another gate above the turbine. A sound insulated shed around the turbine ensures that peace and quiet is maintained.

The next tour featured the Ceridwen Centre (again), but this time we also got to see inside the very nice Ceridwen building that can accommodate up to 25 guests at a time! No wonder Roger keeps a careful eye on the wood chip feed.

Discussion in front of the pond-fed water turbine

A hardy bunch, the rain starting to turn to sleet and we're talking turbines

Then off to Keith and Sally’s place. Keith is editor of Green Building Magazine, and a man at the centre of building and energy information. Keith has a log fired boiler, the kind that Roger was referring to, but before we could see that, first the pond-fed water turbine! Keith has two ponds, one with enough water when full for 6 days worth of electricity use, another that guarantees 28 days (and lets face it we are unlikely to go a whole 28 days in Wales without some kind of rain).

Wow the 6 day pond is big! The 28 day pond is practically a lake complete with boat and island! They supply electricity pretty much all year round apart from when the frogs and newts are spawning, when the turbine is turned off. Keith admits that as so much wildlife is now being attracted to the ponds, they might have to create more to off-set natures calendar and the system outage that it requires. A small price to pay for such increase in biodiversity that water brings I think.

The turbine is set close to the river that flows at the bottom of Keith’s land, approximately 10 meters below the ponds. There is some electricity loss along the cables back to the house, but that is to be expected.

Back inside the workshops next to the house, the wood for the log fired boiler is given it’s final dry in the lean-to conservatory area. Like the other places we’d seen on the tour, the cabling and monitoring of energy flow converges in the battery/inverter/regulator hub. Although Keith puts the excess energy into lighting in the workshop, which means that on a dark night it can be like a disco in there (others tend to put it into heating) – more information about the boiler (and the bio-mass to feed it) can be found in the winter 2010 edition of Green Building magazine.

With another stop scheduled on our tour, there wasn’t time to talk about the wind-turbine and other energy feeds. Off to Larkhill Tipis instead.

The Lavvu at Larkhill Tipis

The Lavvu and Laburnum walk on a snowy Winter's day at Larkhill Tipis

Larkhill Tipis has just won Carmarthenshire tourism business of the year award. It was the place I was secretly looking forward to seeing the most, not you understand for the energy installations, but because they have yurts and alachighs and all sorts of wonderfully exotic structures to sleep in under the stars – just my kind of thing.

I’d been wishing for snow for months, it’s timing was lousy. It was really beginning to fall on our short journey around the hill. It did seem a bit daft looking at pv cells covered in snow, but combined with the wind turbines the installation was still producing electricity over and above the energy being consumed by the house and guests (one couple were braving the Winter in a yurt).

With the weather taking a turn for the snowier, and our car-share driver not having a four-wheel drive (indeed our car not being 4×4 either) we decided to not stop to see the compost toilet and other off-grid facilities. Hopefully I will get to see them another time. We hastily made our retreat from the weather and headed home.

The tours were awesome. All our hosts were so generous with their time and so willing to share their experiences and knowledge, and it was just wonderful to spend a few hours with so many people all interested in the same thing. We met lots of friends old and new. Thank you to everyone involved in the days.

More photos from the days on flickr (although I can’t promise I’ll be able to remember what all the technical bits are).

Off-grid living at St Dogs

Two storey strawbale houseIt turned out to be a brilliant weekend. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The thing was, the invitation had all happened on Craig’s facebook page and I hadn’t really been involved, I didn’t know what the weekend was all about or of anyone that was likely to be there (or so I thought). Craig did his masters in Environmental Architecture at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) and knows so much more than me about solar energy, passive houses, hydro and wind power. I didn’t feel that I had anything to contribute to the discussions and that everything would be just too technical. Plus the idea of being “off-grid” reminds me of the impending possible crises; nightmare scenarios of what might happen when peak oil really kicks in slamming straight into global warming extreme weather events, so I’d avoided making a decision until the morning of the first day.

I am so glad that I went. The two days were filled with fantastic people, optimism and stories of empowerment.

I’d half forgotten that the event was going to be held at a two storey load-bearing straw bale house (which basically means the straw walls are taking all of the weight of the roof , floors and everyone in it – no timber-framed supports here!). As we walked further along the steep muddy public footpath above the abbey ruins I began to wonder if we were on the right track. As the path narrowed, signs of footfall disappeared all together. Then just as we were wondering if we’d gone the right way and whether we should turn back we saw it, a deeply pink round house cradled against the wooded valley. Rachel, our fantastic host, was tying balloons to the garden archway. She said something to the effect of “these should help people find it”, which made me smile, and warmly welcomed us in.

The house is amazing, so big inside. So much creativity has gone into every detail, it was really no wonder that it had won Grand Design’s Best Eco-House in 2008 (I was later to find out).

Brigit Strawbrige, Rachel and Tony Wrench

Brigit Strawbrige, Rachel and Tony Wrench

The kettle was on, time for a cup of tea while everyone arrived. I was thrilled to see that Brigit Strawbridge was there. I quickly introduced myself – after all we are facebook friends even though we hadn’t met (curious how that happens) – and thanked her for replying to my request for links to the best bee identification websites. She is wonderfully passionate about the plight of our bees (and rightly so). Turns out we have a rare Carder Bee in this part of Wales, so you can bet I’ll be going through all the photos I took of bees this summer to see if I’ve captured one digitally.

There have been a number of blog posts about the weekend by others. Salena sums up each of the talks perfectly. So rather than drone on here, I’ll let you read her blog to find out more.

For me the best part of the two days was meeting inspiring people who have followed their hearts and achieved, or are set on a course to achieve, some truly amazing things (I also learnt that I know more than I thought and that here is a lot more to be understood!). I can’t wait to find out more about everyone’s projects – good luck everyone. The stage is set for more events like this, the next one at Rachel’s in May 2012 – and Tony Wrench did say that he’d forgotten to bring his home made wine to this one – next time …

Thank you Rachel and team for a lovely weekend.

Oh I can’t believe I got to the end and didn’t mention the food. It was AMAZING. Thank you lovechefs for the lunchtime savouries and Rachel’s mum for the mid-afternoon sweets.