Building Resilience

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will know that a few years ago I started planning to prepare for my old age. Yes, I am in my 70’s but I don’t feel old yet (well not most days!). I am planning for my 90’s and later and anticipating maybe less robust good health. But I have no wish to move to somewhere ‘sensible’, a bungalow in a village with a bus service. I like it here, I have brilliant neighbours but to stay here for the duration means planning for problems.

Amongst those problems were the things over which I have no control like pandemics and climate change. And lately two things have shown up a hole in that resilience.

The first is that here in the UK elctricity prices have soared. They are predicted to rise again in April when the Government allows companies to charge more. That will mean the price has doubled in a very short time. The problem is that although there has been a huge increase in renewable generation the National Grid still needs to have gas powered stations on stand-by for the times when demand surges – the early evening when everyone gets in from work, breakfast time when showers, kettles and toasters all go on, even the ad break in a popular Soap Opera when lots of people make a cuppa. And Gas is sold on the global market with a current shortage of supply. Several electricity supply companies have gone bust recently because the price rises to them caught them out. Their customers had to be transferred to other providers which has given headaches to both the customers (they lost a good price deal and went onto a higher tarrif) and the companies that had to accept them. The upshot is that as I have an Air Surce Heat Pump to heat my home my bills have increased dramatically even though it is a pretty efficient system. I can pay them but it means cutting back elsewhere and losing some of the fun things. Petrol prices have risen less dramatically but filling my car takes more money than it did a few months ago. And transport costs going up means food and other things go up too. What is a girl to do?

My Heat Pump works well – but at a cost!

In the long term everything will even out, gas prices will stabilise, but I cannot imagine that energy in any form will be much cheaper. Except wood which grows happily without any cost to me and which I can, and do, cut without recourse to fossil fuels.

I have a small woodstove as back up to the Heat Pump but it is not very powerful and certainly cannot heat the whole house. Time for a rethink.

The second sign of trouble has been that we have had two major storms this week and a third is forecast for tonight. The Met Office gives storms names only if they pose a threat and we have had Dudley and Eunice so far this week and Franklin has just been named and is expected tonight. Warnings are issued to help us prepare – yellow means a low risk but that damage cannot be ruled out, orange that damage is likely and red that it is pretty much inevitable. Eunice warranted a RED warning which is very rare. On Thursday I had an email from my home insurer reminding me how to make a claim, giving me my policy number to make it easier to identify myself, and telling me they had arranged for extra staff in their call center; and another from Western Power Distribution who manage the power lines telling me they had cancelled all routine work, had all their engineers on stand-by with helicopters to move them if flight was possible and they too had extra call center staff to deal with queries. They were clearly putting their contingency plans for a major incident into operation! In the event my house was perfectly safe and my garden suffered very little damage – one dying Ash tree fell but hit nothing important and one door blew off one greenhouse. This morning there were two fairly short power cuts and as I have been writing this I have had a message that there are problems with the water supply in my area. Other people fared much worse.

Apologies for the poor quality photo – it was blowing a hooley and the rain was horizontal!

Whether you believe in climate change (I do) or not it is clear that extreme weather events are becoming more common. Which means power cuts will become more common. Understandably when there is widespread disruption to the electricity network the first jobs tackled are those which get most people reconnected. In this remote rural place we are at the end of the queue. I have a couple of advantages – Because I am old and disabled I am perceived as vulnerable (I can hear you laughing – I do too!) but they can deal with that by passing my details to Social Services or the Red Cross to check on me and provide help if I need it. My big scret weapon is cows. My neighbour at the dairy farm up the hill milks over 200 cows twice a day and no way can that be done by hand. So if the power goes off it is an emergency and, to be fair, Western Power always get them reconnected quickly even if it means bringing in a generator or other temporary equipment. And that usually means I get power too. But at present in a power cut I have no heating and no means of cooking.

So I have decided to invest in a bigger wood burner in my sitting room. Which means having the old liner in the chimney removed and a new one put in. Apparantly the old one will be coming to the end of its life and it is better to have all the disruption in one go. It has taken me weeks to decide on the best stove and firm and it will be May before it can be installed. I was dismayed that most of the firms I contacted just told me to choose a fire and then they would fit it for a fixed fee. Their advice on how big the new stove should be seemed to be plucked out of thin air. It was Mr Snail who pointed out that for most people these stoves are nice accessories for the sitting room, lit on Christmas Day and maybe other high days and holidays, nice to have in a power cut but very much an adjunct to the central heating. How it looks is then the crucial factor in the choice. Only one firm understood that I wanted to use one as my main heat source. And I wanted to be able to boil a kettle or simmer a stew on it on a regular basis. My Heat Pump will still be there and will be maintained. In very cold weather the fire may not provide enough heat to keep the chill off the bedroom or kitchen and I may want to supplement it with the radiators. Or if I am too ill to cut wood or keep the fire going I need another heat source. But for the most part I will heat my home on free wood and do some cooking with it too. That should reduce my elctricity bills to a more manageable level and restore my capacity to have money for fun.

A permaculture principle is ‘Every function should be supported by more than one element and every element should serve more than one function’. That is a definition of resilience. I am getting there.