Chapter 5: Staying Alive
Footnote: Energy Costs
Modern society denies most the option their ancestors had of going out into the forest and gathering fuel for heating and cooking. Fuel can now only be bought with money. Modern society also denies many the means of turning their work into money, leaving them literally out in the cold.
There is no shortage of fuel on this planet. There is also no shortage of skill to grow it, mine it, drill for it and distribute it. There is no shortage of energy on this planet. There is also no shortage of expertise to build systems to extract it from sunshine or capture it from the wind and the waves. Yet millions have to endure the debilitating cold of winter in inadequately heated homes. This irrational paradox has no natural cause. It is the evil doing of a socio-economic system founded upon the unbridled pursuit of self-interest.
This system results in many people of working age and relevant skills being denied the means of turning their work into money. The compensation which a self-interest based society reluctantly pays them in return for this denial is naturally the least amount which it can get away with. The amount is therefore bound to be inadequate for the purpose of affording one so denied a dignified quality of life.
I complain to officials about the inadequacy of our heating budget. Their reply is always the same. To live within my welfare budget, they tell me, I can always turn down the heating another degree. Their minds seem unable or unwilling to grasp the notion of threshold. There is a temperature threshold at which the human life-form ceases to be able to function at a level which modern society expects and requires.
We have tried it their way. We have turned down our heating to reduce the gas bill further. We turned it down until the temperature in the main habitable rooms was just below 18°C. We put on extra thermal underwear and sweaters to compensate. The result was not as the uninitiated would suppose.
My mind is normally very active. Ideas come quickly and easily. When I turned down the thermostat, I found myself sitting there inactive and uninspired for hours on end. So I reset the heating back to its minimum adequate temperature. My inspiration and productiveness returned as the temperature rose again. As little as 1C° can make the difference. If I am to be about the business of searching for work and updating my skills then I can only do so effectively in a home which is adequately heated.
The operating temperature of the human body is 37°C. It is the same whether the body belongs to the Queen of England in her nice warm palace or to a tramp crouched in a freezing shop doorway. The body's core temperature must be preserved. The energy required to do this depends on the difference in temperature between the body and its surroundings. As its surroundings become cooler, the body maintains the temperature of its most vital parts at the expense of its less vital parts.
The result is an accelerating degradation in the body's performance as its surroundings drop below the threshold temperature. This is rapidly followed by a degradation in the performance of the mind. For me at present this threshold temperature is 18°C. It is, I should imagine, likely to get higher as one gets older.
With appropriate protection, the short sharp shock of a bracing walk in the cold can indeed spur one into action and be of benefit. Living in a prolonged inadequate temperature - even with outdoor clothing - does not. On the contrary, it wears one down. It stifles inspiration. It induces lethargy, slowness and poor productivity.
The energy consumed by our domestic heating for the years since 1976 are shown in the following chart.
Graph Applet: Energy Consumption (Gas)
This energy could only be measured once gas was installed in 1980. The initial low energy reading (for the year 1980-81) is because gas supplied our heating for only part of that year. Before that, heating was by coal fire.
On my becoming unemployed, we reduced our gas consumption to around 22½MWh per year. That is a reduction of 20%. This put our average living room temperature well below the 18°C threshold.
The cost of the gas that provided this thermal energy is shown in the following chart. (See table for the figures from which this chart was generated.)
Graph Applet: Energy Cost (Gas)
At the April 1994 gas price of 1.477 pence per kWh this cost us £332.33 for the year. There was also a meter cost of £36.86 plus £52.44 for boiler maintenance giving a total cost for heating for the year of £421.63 (at the 1993 value of the £). We eventually had to terminate the servicing contract on the boiler in order to conserve money. So now, if it goes wrong, we have no heating.
The energy in the form of electricity for the years since 1976 are shown in the following chart. On the vertical scale, M stands for megawatt-hours. Note that the vertical scale covers only one tenth the range covered by the vertical scale on the gas energy graph.
Graph Applet: Energy Consumption (Electricity)
The initial peak in 1979-80 is when I got my first computers. They were not as energy efficient as modern personal computers. The dip in 1981-82 was when I spent most of my time on client sites. My adoption and use of electrical equipment - both office and domestic - grew considerably over the following decade. However, this was offset to some extent by our adoption of energy-saving measures throughout the home.
This was one of my personal interests long before I became unemployed. As a result, all downstairs lamps are now energy-saving fluorescent tubes. Our most used light is a table lamp on the sitting room sideboard with a 15 watt energy-saving bulb. We have acquired the habit of going to bed early and getting up early in the summer to avoid the need for artificial light. I installed two-way switching in the sitting room, hall, landing and two of the bedrooms so that lights can easily be switched off from where people tend to be. The refrigerator and freezer are kept free of ice and their radiators free from dust and open to good air flow. My computer is the only other constant consumer of electricity in its role as an aid to searching for work and keeping my skills current.
As a result, our consumption of electricity has been reduced to its practical minimum of about 3½MWh a year. At 7.42 pence per unit this cost us £259.25 in the year 1993-94. Any attempt to reduce electricity consumption further would be positively detrimental to the functionality of our home.
The overall cost of this electrical energy is shown in the following chart. (See table for the figures from which this chart was generated.)
Graph Applet: Energy Cost (Electricity)
I did investigate alternative technology as a means of easing the burden of our crippling gas, electricity and (after metering comes into force) water bills. After all, sunshine and rain are free and untaxed (at least they still were at the time of writing).
I would like very much to add a solar collector to the hot water system. This should eliminate the need for gas fired water heating during the summer at least, and provide a substantial saving during the winter months by pre-warming the water at the bottom of a greatly enlarged hot water tank. I even went quite deeply into the technology of photo-voltaic cells and a small wind generator to supplement our electricity needs. I planned to use these to provide a low voltage supply, from which inverters could supply low energy lighting, timing and sensing. Further, to save the inevitable sharp increase in the cost of water when metering is installed, I could collect the rain water which falls on my house and pass it through a separate water system for lavatory flushing.
However, the massive capital cost of these alternative technology ideas rule them out instantly. Besides, I cannot imagine the government omitting to tax such a copious source of free energy should it become popular.
The stark truth is that our utility bills cannot be squeezed any further without drastically diminishing the health and ability of each member of our family.
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© July 1994 Robert John Morton