Andy Reynolds “Wind & Solar Electricity”

ISBN 978-0-9549171-6-6. “Wind & Solar Electricity – a practical DIY Guide” was published by the Low Impact Living Initiative in late 2009. Your £10 will buy you 187 pages which includes Introduction, ten chapters, appendix and index. There are a large number of illustrations throughout but, other than the front cover, nothing is in colour which reflects the non-profit nature of LILI. The LILI mission is to “help people reduce their impact on the environment, improve their quality of life, gain new skills, live in a healthier and more satisfying way, have fun and save money” all of which is totally laudable. We must pay them a visit sometime as they are based in Winslow not far from us in Buckinghamshire, UK. No doubt many a Transition Towner has been through their doors. Andy’s book is a perfect result of the “gain new skills” part of that mission. Indeed the “practical DIY guide” subtitle is the real clue here. This is the second LILI book we have reviewed and the second by Andy. Although duty-bound to ‘cheer-on’ LILI we expect the most useful skills (that many of us will be learning) would center around the garden and chicken-raising. A glance through the many services supplied by LILI we can spy such topics as making biodiesel, composting toilets, rammed earth building, sustainable sewage, building yurts and pig keeping……

….so it is largely aimed at the converted. Nothing wrong with that as long as we don’t all come over as too esoteric and start reinforcing prejudices. Sustainable living has to become the predominant paradigm if it is to sustain everyone all of the time. Since the tide has largely surged in the other direction most of us have been dragged under without even knowing. Some of us have spent our entire lives within the cheap fossil fuelled bubble and have only quite recently found it to be shrinking. Those of us looking closely can see beyond the bubble to the bright uplands beyond. Most of the population, within the rich northern parts of our planet, have no idea what this bright light is. For them it is scary. It is the unknown. Somehow we feel that the mission of the Post-Carbon Living initiative is to usher in this new normality for the most number of people with the least amount of pain. If it is perceived as a DIY hobby for bearded men in sandals, in garages, in a Sunday afternoon, before they pop indoors for a bowl of organic muesli – then this may be just one stereotype too far. “Normal” people reject naff stereotypes. With this book you may feel you are reading the maintenance manual from some old 1920’s car. Interesting ONLY if you like tinkering with old cars. Since most of us drive around in modern cars that don’t need us to lift the bonnet (lest you undermine the warranty), then this all seems a little weird. If 90 years of evolving technology has given us a car which only needs a check over once a year, by a trained mechanic, then this is how high the bar is set for domestic microgeneration systems. Most of us do not want to know how they work. Given the current evolution of batteries then we should hope to have maintenance-free batteries with the energy density of petroleum within thirty years. Then we need a few plug’n’play components to link in your microgeneration system to the grid with emergency backup and the job is done. If our society dissolves so badly that we need to know how it all works then it is doubtful you would find the parts to keep such a system running anyway. Something would have to happen with the over-population of the planet before there is enough leftover-&-unused-garbage in the world to allow us to recycle old washing machines into wind turbines. So – let’s be clear then, Andy’s book concerns a useful hobby, but a hobby no less. It cannot be a cohesive plan for the transition of the existing UK housing stock from grid-dependency to sustainability – nor was it likley to have been intended as such.

At this point we could cut and paste the entire review for “Heating with Wood” (Andy’s other title reviewed above) here and just change the title. Job done. This is more of the same, with all of the same caveats – although still recommended. Andy revels in making his hobby sound as truly dangerous and as much like hardwork as possible. This is not designed for anyone with a casual interest in solar and wind generated electricity. All those grainy pictures of rows of forklift truck batteries in some dirty run-down brick garage somewhere may well get a small number of ‘Fred Dibna’ characters excited. However the occasional discussion about how a hydrogen explosion can result from battery mismanagement, or of how battery acid burns through your clothes or how you can electrocute yourself, is not for the feint-of-heart. This is DIY for the very determined DIY-er for whom there really is no alternative. Don’t get us wrong – we do know hobbyists who solder together photovoltaic panels and batteries but they do not try and run their homes off the stuff. Let’s face it, for 99.99% of all the people out their in western suburbia, who WOULD benefit from their own personal power station on the roof, this is all irrelevant data. But none of them will be buying this book.

Some of Andy’s book does read like the sort of physics text books you might have seen when you 14 years old. Unless you are actually going to specify your own DIY off-grid system it isn’t clear how you would use this information. On the other hand most of this book is a write-up of Andy’s own work hence it focuses on certain aspects of the systems that most interest him. You get the full run down on battery maintenance even up to the point of making your own. Certain factors get mentioned repeatedly such as the resistance load for the turbine. Most books on the topic wax somewhat lyrical about how modern turbines ‘furl’ to avoid the need for such devices. Another interesting feature is the lengthy coverage given to home-made photovoltaic panel sun-tracking devices. We can truly say that we have practically never read anything about this topic in any other book. Now if you live in isolated Lincolnshire, with plenty of space to play with, then it is probably quite practical to mount you solar panels on a pivot so they follow the sun during the day. Very ingenious and, if the author is to be believed, yielding up to 50% more power on sunny summer days. However, most of us don’t live in rural areas any more. Although Andy often warns of how turbine noise might annoy the neighbours I am sure a device looking like a home-made satellite tracking device, mounted on your garage, is unlikely to win you any favours with either your Council Planning Department or your neighbours. This is not to mention just how dangerous such a device potentially is! As the author occasionally admits it is often more economic simply to buy more solar panels. As few of us have the space nor skills to build such a system, and wouldn’t be allowed to have it in either house or back garden, then this explains why such devices seem to get omitted from practically every guide on Photovoltaics. These are toys for hobbyists. Fun toys… And if they can be made cheaply enough then useful. However, again as Andy warns, you cannot mount as many solar panels on a pole as you can on your roof. Period.

So we do have a book that is a singular description of one man’s obsession. If you wish to repeat this obsession then buy this book – it is full of useful tips. Much of the terminology the author uses return time and again the systems HE has implemented rather than what most OTHER people might come in contact with. He charmingly refers again and again to his beloved “battery shed” regardless of the fact that few of us will encounter such a strange concept. The author treats this as quite normal. Don’t we all have battery sheds in our gardens or apartments? Unless we truly believe that we are on the brink of true grid breakdown and ‘Mad Max’ type scenario then most of us really only need to know about grid-tied systems. But where is the fun in that?

Andy does try and venture outside of his security blanket by writing, here and there, about the sorts of system that most of us mortals will end up with on our roofs. You get brief mention of the Feed In Tariff which was a bit of an unknown at the time of writing (2009) given that it was not fully detailed until February 2010. Writing this review in August 2010 we have the full benefit of hindsight and can say, with full confidence, that almost everything Andy writes about ROC’s can safely be junked. Another problem that Andy mentions twice is this: unless your system is installed by a Microgeneration Certification Scheme registered installer then you will not get a penny in money from either the old Low Carbon Building Program Grants scheme (now scrapped) or the Feed in Tariffs. So you will fund the system yourself. If you are the sort of hobbyist, this book is aimed at, then this is unlikely to be an issue for you. The author’s philosophy is not one resulting from fear of climate change nor of catastrophic resource depletion. Rather his is a belief brought on by a passionate dislike of any dependency upon large corporations. Now we admit that we have shelves groaning under the weight of Noam Chomsky books but we wouldn’t name dependency upon corporations within our top ten concerns. Dependency upon fossil fuels is the primary problem and this is linked to an ever-growing economy, on a finite planet, that locks us into the corporate system and impending disaster. Andy is basically right – if you don’t trust a system (and wish to see it wither) then don’t use it. Of course, this only works if nobody else uses it either. Since everybody else won’t build a DIY homepower system then this remains a minority strategy for achieving global justice and equality. It does feel good to generate your own power but you can start out as grid-tied and see where it goes. Which isn’t far as it is a topic Andy doesn’t explore.

There is no roadmap beyond grid-tied. Andy describes a grid-tied system and one with a UPS inverter that kicks over from battery to mains power when the battery dies. That is great but what most of us need is brown-out protection where the solar/wind system powers the home, and charges the gel batteries which provide 24 hours of supply where the mains fails. Hence the grid is the BIG battery that keeps you going most of the time until it fails – then your own little battery bank keeps you going until the grid comes back. The very fact that grid-tied inverters switch off in the absence of grid-power remains a big problem in the evolution of resilient systems. When the lights go off then YOUR lights go off too – even if you have adequate renewable energy on your roof to power your home all year. Andy only repeats the same tired old platitude about how this is to protect some mythical “lines man”. Of course this is a rubbish. Andy’s own book describes a type of relay that could easily isolate your inverter from the grid in time of power cut. The technology exists to isolate grid tied systems, when the grid goes down, then switch over to battery back up. But it is territory unexplored by the author. However it may be an area he covers on the LILI forum at (under ‘energy’).

Alongside areas the author rather over-exposes (and the others he ignores) we also get a few errors creeping in. On page 122 he tells us that a disadvantage of grid-tied system is that your electricity utility will not buy power “below 6 kilowatt hours”. Without stating in which time period this is meaningless. A month, a year, a day? This is a critical piece of information! If it is a year then this is barely a system worth connecting to the grid. If it is per day then this is quite a large system and you will be paid for this export. Through pages 146 & 147 the author sings the praises of Good Energy claiming that they were the only supplier “actively engaging with ROCs”. We dealt with NPower on ROC’s back in 2005 through 2008. The paperwork involved is a nightmare which is why you need your Energy Utility to act as your agent. NPower were proactive with the ROC’s scheme however we were reluctant to engage with this system as it pays polluters. We would rather these carbon credits were simply unavailable to the market and push up their price. This is the difference between our philosophies. Big company versus big carbon. We choose differently…. Once again an excellent book for the hobbyist. It won’t change the world. Nevertheless, keep up the good work LILI!

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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