The retreat now has the UKs largest privately owned solar farm and off grid battery setup, or at least according to victron the manufacturers of the control systems.
As we accidentally unfold this beautiful place into a retreat, community or whatever it ends up being, we have been moved to opt to take as much of our energy off grid and self supplied as we possibly can. Maybe it is our anticipation that energy, water and food costs will rise, or maybe it's a simple belief that we need to be in control of as much of our essential resources as we can moving forward but here we are.
What it is not is an attempt for us to be green or environmental because we realised long ago that none of this technology is. The materials and methods of manufacture are far from friendly to the environment and their short life span with no method of disposal leaves no doubt that it's independence we seek and not green kudos.
So is solar and wind a sustainable source
As we watch countries across the globe agree to dramatic changes in their sources of energy supply, in the name of an invented story climate change or a climate it's been amusing to say the least. Listening to how carbon dioxide, the gas that feeds every tree, plant and all vegitation, without which we all die is the enemy is a constant source of fascination. Pump it into your green house and watch you plants outgrow anything you've ever seen because it's actually a tiny part of the atmosphere and they all want more not less but that's an aside.
To keep to the point, we have a relatively unique and specififc experience of these new energy technologies, having now had them for a while and those experiences have been enlightening to say the least. We rely upon our solar installation to power a limited area of the retreat, including our bistro, water pumps and bars which is currently a fraction of their intended use but we have already realised that we have become fully dependent on a diesel generator for many weeks of the winter so far.
Our major solar array for the technically minded is a large 56kW capacity system, feeding no less than 104kWh of lithium batteries, which we had anticipated would mean we would need very little diesel generator usage, even through the winter. Our installers warned of the wintertime calculations and reality but it's not until you are living it that you start to see it for what it really is. That's what we're sharing here.
The truth of solar in the UK is that in the summer it is very helpful and generates an over supply, filling the batteries relatively quickly on most days. More often than not it allows you to go into the darker evening with full batteries, which are more than enough to carry us through the night and beyond, but then comes winter. With very short daylight hours and our Devon rain and weather, we must generate our daytime usage and enough to fill the 104kWh batteries in only around 6 hours of less than sunny daylight.
It turns out that on the duller days, of which we have had many weeks already this year, the 56kW capacity of the huge solar panel array we have can drop to less than 1kW of actual output. Which by the way is less than 2% of their rated capacity, and these are the good panels, not cheap ones.
What does that all mean? It means that for weeks now the array has supplied only a fraction of what's needed for the limited load we have on it and our large diesel generator has had to supply the rest. I like to think of us as more of an off grid diesel powered retreat than a sustainable solar one at this point in winter, and our power needs have been quite low so far too.
Cars, solar, wind and no more coal, gas and nuclear
I was moved to write this article because I now see way better than most, who don't have the experience we've had at the retreat, that there is utter madness happening in the world around shifting the sources and what's using electrical energy.
Having owned several electric vehicles including the Teslas and hybrids, I have also experienced the sheer amount of electricity that they use. There's no point discussing their green credentials here, so if you are interested in those look up the cobalt mines and disposal of the batteries to get you started. No, it's the power they use that has me transfixed when I look at the proposed and active changes in world energy supply.
Solar creates power when it's very sunny and wind when it's very windy. If niether of those conditions are true, then there is no power at all, even from our 60m x 3m solar table at the retreat. So here's where experiences converge and we see a slight issue with the cars, wind and solar becoming a thing all at once as we ditch gas, coal and nuclear across the globe.
The cars use a lot of power and in winter the solar creates almost none. If the wind blows you can use wind if your turbines are working but if the wind stops you get nothing from that too. Why did i say if your turbine is working? Because they often don't and also need diesel engines to start them in most cases. To place this into perspective, our 60m x 3m array would have zero chance of powering a single car in winter. In fact for the past 3 weeks you would have been going nowhere at all, which is the greenest thing you can possibly do in an electric car and maybe it's the plan.
These cars often have anything up to a 120kWh battery and in order to generate power for each one on the road you'll need lots of panels or wind in winter. More than is possible.
What does that mean for global energy?
When we chose to go with solar at the retreat it was because we saw that energy cost inflation was and is going out of control, and also that we could not be sure that we wouldn't get switched off or rationed at some point. We were right and wrong to go solar all at the same time.
Our huge solar array and batteries have brought us a level of independence from the unpredictable mains supply and it's brought a level of free power generation that will minimise our exposure to the market prices but what it has not brought is energy resilience or a way to avoid using diesel to power our stuff.
What we see now is that on a global scale the shifts in the energy production methods, the loss of coal, gas and nuclear, and the new found reliance on solar and wind will bring limitations in supply, soaring costs and rationing at some point. This is especially true as global governments move to force the use of electric cars.
The lie that the cars, the solar, the batteries and the wind are actually green just makes this whole thing look both crazy and carefully planned out. Unsustainable wind farms that use huge amounts of energy to forge immense steel monoliths that give unfortunate dressing to our hills and seas, and use huge amounts of concrete for their foundations, only to be unmanageable and unreliable is surely no accident.
A crazy move for crazy times
Whilst we are pleased to have a level of resilience and to have a backup power supply, whether reliable or not, we are also more sure than ever of the intuiitive and accidental reason we were guided to do it. There is a time coming soon that will see energy shortages and rationing. As the cars, solar and wind converge, and as the current "sustainable" generation systems become unworkable to maintain there will be an inevitable tipping point. The maintenance issues are already happening for both solar and wind generation fields, with many of the biggest companies such as Siemens who have built them losing billions trying to keep them running.
The rollercoaster that is the world we live in, is almost at the top of the highest peak and soon we will all get a chance to hold on for grim death or throw our hands up and enjoy the ride. I definitely advocate for the latter because it's all a great experience and quite possibly the best ever time to be alive ever but maybe a bit of preparation or anticipation would make it feel just a little bit better.
Together with food supplies, jobs with AI, a financial system on the brink of obliteration and wars and government turmoil, the energy supply is now to be added to the list of spaces to watch. It's exciting and special all in one and whether we realise it or not, it's coming to all of us pretty soon I suspect, so being ready is better than it being a surprise.
The question for most of "is it really all about climate change or is it even green?" has been and gone for us here at the retreat now. The answers being no and no. This is a moment where we all decide what we are willing to see and we all get a choice to notice or to ignore it in denial but either way the prognosis for cheap or abundant energy looks truly bleak on all levels based on the facts.
So whilst we don't get the power we wanted to in winter, at least we are prepared on some level and we can safely say we can switch the lights on for a while yet, no matter how it all turns out. The question is can you and is there anything you can do about that?