Unfair Advantage

19th April 2012 by

A little cartoon abut doping (which allows me to crow bar in my interest in solar panels – sorry). Click to see the full size image. More cartoons here.

Lighting the way

13th February 2012 by

Last week I spent one lunchtime inside a darkened corridor, armed with a solar torch to light my way. This wasn’t a potholing expedition or a powercut, but a visit to the Strand Gallery in Charing Cross, London, to see an exhibition of photographs hosted by the Ashden Awards.

Photographer Peter DiCampo  spent months documenting life after dark in northern Ghana without a basic utility that in rich countries we take so much for granted: electricity.

In the villages he visited, nightlife is lit fitfully, by candle or kerosene or moonlight – a way of life known to 1.4 billion people worldwide.

At the Strand gallery, you are handed your own solar lamp with which to light your way through the darkened exhibition. By their nature, diCampo’s photographs are deeply, densely devoid of light, and at first glance some seem to be no more than black rectangles. But as you bring your lamp closer, and move it across the image, details of village life bloom out of the darkness and into your vision, portion by portion: children squinting over homework; the extraordinary nighttime market at Gbulung.

I admit I brought some reservations to the project with me – my nagging thought was that the lack of electricity should not necessarily be characterised as a sign in itself of a deprivation that always requires a solution. That humans have lived without it until the most recent blink of an eye, and will some day all do so again. That there is a valuable attunement with the earth in structuring individual and community life around the natural rising and setting of the sun – the kind of connection whose loss has helped to lead the rich world down such a destructive path.

On the other hand, I was reminded by the exhibition of the hardship that in many cases electricity might alleviate: teachers are reluctant to serve remote villages that lack light, for example. And caesarian sections are often performed by torchlight, raising the risk to mother and baby.

The Ashden Awards focus on supporting charities and businesses which seek to bring clean energy to the global South – not on a grand, industrial scale but on a human scale using technologies the community can itself own, control and fuel, and for me it is this notion of community ownership and social justice that makes its work so admirable. So this might mean, for example, small-scale biogas generators creating power from waste, or in this case solar lamps.

Upstairs at the gallery there is a display about the inspiring projects supported by Ashden, which is also well worth a look.


Three Little Pigs

21st January 2012 by

Click for the full size image. More cartoons here.

Biofuels: the choice between petrol and beefburgers

13th January 2012 by

When I was little I used to know a man who ran a car on used vegetable oil. As a 10 year old this fascinated me- it was beyond my wildest imagination that you can make a car go on skanky old oil scrounged from the chippy.

As the monumental reality settled in that the world would one day run out of oil (cue childish fantasies of a post-apocalyptic society where we would all have to cook our pet cats over bonfires made from old furniture because we couldn’t drive to the shop) I began to think that making oil out of vegetables was the best idea since Lego. My brother and I spent many an evening poring over maps, plotting our route to Timbuktu via as many chip shops as possible, once we’d converted the family car to guzzle vegetables.

In hindsight, I now realise that it’s not possible to fuel the worlds estimated 800 million cars on old vegetable oil alone – NOBODY could eat that many chips. Luckily, some smart people in the energy industry came up with idea of growing plants such as corn or sugarcane, specially to turn into bioethanol fuel through fermentation.

On paper this seems like an excellent idea- we can avert an energy crisis (no more burning the antique coffee table out of desperation) using a sustainable fuel supply which is a lot less damaging to the climate than fossil fuels. Infact, it was such a good idea that over 2.7% of all road transport now uses biofuel to keep the world’s wheels going.

However, biofuels are marred by controversy, becoming an example used by the environmental movement of a misguided policy used by governments to greenwash ‘business as normal’.

The biggest problem biofuels present is that they compete for land usually used for growing food. In a world where human populations are hurtling towards 7 billion and with almost 1 billion are in constant hunger, we really need to critically examine which is more important- well fed people or well oiled motors?

There have been many vehement reports of the effects of biofuels on world hunger. Numerous articles state biofuel production as a major factor in the 07/08 global food crisis, in which increased competition for agricultural land pushed up prices way above the means of many resulting in global riots, political instability and starvation. One leaked World Bank report implies that the US and UK government targets on increasing biofuel use has pushed world food prices up by 75%, pushing 100m people below the poverty line.

So should we write biofuels off as a very bad idea? According to Zero Carbon Britain, a future energy strategy designed by the Centre for Alternative Technology, biofuels have their rightful place in a sustainable energy plan. In fact, they go so far to suggest that 1.67 million hectares (about 7% of UK’s total land area, including urban and mountainous areas) should be dedicated to transport biofuel.

When I first heard this I was couldn’t help thinking they were a tad misguided. But actually what the Zero Carbon Britain report advocates is the sensible use of land. UK agriculture currently takes up about 16 million hectares of land, of which 11 hectares is dedicated to livestock and another 5 million to livestock feed. Arable crops are notoriously more efficient at feeding humans than livestock, so by reducing the nation’s meat consumption and switching to a arable based diet, more land would be freed up for fuel production. Also, a new form of 2nd generation biofuels are being produced, which can grow on more degraded land that isn’t prime arable land.

'I'd rather be a vegetable'

I know that the idea that biofuels might have a place in our zero carbon future is slightly controversial – indeed I’ve received an interesting (!) reaction by suggesting it in our office. There are a litany of arguments that instead we should stop relying on energy for transport altogether. But the debate about land use is an interesting one and really needs to be thought about carefully if we want to really fairly share the resources that the planet can provide for a sustainable future. But faced with the choice what would you choose – petrol or meat?

Power to the people

20th December 2011 by

Are workers’ cooperatives the way forward in creating green & decent jobs?

As Hanna mentioned in her recent blog, one of the biggest challenges our Greener Jobs Pipeline project faces is convincing employers to take on young and ‘untested’ apprentices.

So of course the obvious solution is to take on job creation ourselves by becoming employers, preferably creating jobs where the employees have a real stake in the business, are paid living wages and have opportunities for career advancement! Easy peasy. Ha.

Before you call me an unrealistic idealist, this model does exist. It’s out there and it’s actually working. And yes, it’s even working in the middle of a recession. It’s working in Spain, in Venezuela, in the UK and in even in TV-land.

I recently came across a really inspiring American example, Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio. The explicit goal of this inter-linked set of cooperatives is to employ local people while building thriving, profitable businesses. Evergreen is based in a poor, mostly black area of Cleveland, where the median income is less than $19,000 (£11,800). In 2009, they launched two worker-owned businesses: Evergreen Cooperative Laundry and Ohio Solar. They’re also in the process of breaking ground on a year-round hydroponic food growing project, Green City Growers.

Basically, I love everything about them. They’re employee-owned, profitable, green and all about spreading wealth rather than just creating jobs. In mainstream business-as-usual, that’s subversive stuff.

Why does it work?

  • Money talks. Evergreen received a big cash injection to get going. For example, the start-up costs for Evergreen Cooperative Laundry were $5.7million (£3.6 million), contributed from national and local government bodies, tax credits, a community foundation and two banks.
  • Contractor buy-in from the start. Several of the project’s ‘anchor organisations’ that helped get it up and running are now large contractors for their services, including the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. The laundry business scored two big nursing home contracts pretty quickly, and Ohio Solar has been busy weatherizing and installing PV panels on buildings belonging to almost all the anchor organisations. In fact, the whole project was convened by the Cleveland Foundation when they set out to answer the question “why is it that so few benefits and so little wealth from our most profitable local institutions are flowing to local people?
  • Well trained staff. Evergreen recruits their workers from a local charity called Towards Employment, which provides all sorts of job readiness training for local residents. They also hired expert management and technical skills from outside the community to help get the cooperatives up and running.
  • Big ambition combined with realistic short-term goals. They want to seed a network of inter-related cooperatives, eventually employing around 5,000 people, but they’ve got the good sense to start small and test things out. As far as I can tell, so far they’re employing around 22 people (15 at the laundry and 7 at Ohio Solar) with plans to grow to around 50 per cooperative. Each business has also committed to put 10% of its profits back into a Cooperative Development Fund to help launch more social enterprises.

That’s not to say that they don’t have their challenges as well. It’ll be interesting to see how well these businesses thrive and grow over the long run, especially when they start looking for clients beyond the initial anchor organisations, and whether they eventually manage to hand over the management to community members instead of the outside experts who were initially hired.

But no matter what, Evergreen has been successful in creating green and decent jobs for Cleveland’s residents. On any scale, that’s a success in my books!

Positive impact Christmas

9th December 2011 by

I have avoided cycling through central London in an attempt to ignore the spirit of consumption that’s hanging from lampposts, exhibited in shop windows and adorning Christmas trees.

It seems the terms and conditions of Christmas include tons of waste in the shape of cards, wrapping paper, useless unwanted gifts, disposable decorations, broken light bulbs and “unstorable” Christmas trees. Were the pagan and Christian origins of Christmas so waste-oriented?

I’m sure lots of traditions and cultures sculpted our current festive season. Can we shape it even further with the choices we are making today?

I’m sure we can by prioritising values over stuff and by trying to minimise our impact. What are our options then?


Get crafty and make your own cards with recycled materials. Cereal boxes, old maps or tetrapacks are a great starting point. If you have kids or know someone who has, have a card making session with them (it helps the creative mood if cake or ice cream is included).


Give time instead of products. Who do you know that could benefit from your cooking, gardening, sewing, singing or baby-sitting skills? Make your own tailored coupons (you could even add a ‘use by date’). If you are keen to spend some money then visit your local charity shop in search of hidden treasures, or support local traders. Think about all those friends trying to make a living selling their music, paintings, photos and books. We could all have a happy festive season supporting each other. You could always just re-gift.

Wrapping paper

Tea soaked newspaper looks amazing. Or just use it as it is preferably in sections with lots of images or nice patterns. Magazines, posters, old promotional material is also useful. You could also use a forgotten blanket. How? Check out this website to find out all you need to know about cloth wrapping.


Last year I came across home made edible Christmas decorations. What a great idea! You just eat them through out the season or afterwards. If you think mice will eat them before you do so, try swapping decorations with your relative / neighbour or give a new look to the ones you have. Ideas for hand made Christmas decorations here.


I’ve got mixed up feelings about lights but I guess that if you can’t live without them go for solar powered ones. If all you want is to impress your friends, use Shelter’s housebling to avoid scary electricity bills (it includes snow). Check how mine looks below.

Christmas tree

Ever tried a totally different approach? How about a wish list post-it note Christmas tree? I thought it was a fantastic new idea but a quick Internet image search proved me wrong.

Check out this guide with 19 Christmas tree alternatives. It might be already too late for a pallet Christmas tree but you could keep it in mind for next year.

We can all make the world a better place this festive season by finding more sustainable ways to celebrate it.

Smiles and positive vibes, Calu

Spread a ray of sunshine

1st December 2011 by

In deepest darkest winter, when the nights draw in and our governments head to the UN for more fraught negotiations on the future of the world’s climate and its seven billion people, I search for things that give me hope. Things that crack open the darkness of my annual November pessimism and spread a ray of light.

In the wake of the devastating cuts to the Feed-in Tariff (FiT) currently proposed by the coalition government, these solar projects make me happy. They remind me that there is reason for optimism – along with the movement to reduce our dependence on dirty fossil fuels, the alternatives are growing. And boy are they beautiful.

Solar Mosiac

This California-based community crowdfunding project lets people come together to fund solar panel projects. So far, Solar Mosiac members have funded solar power for the Asian Resource Centre in Oakland, California and they’re just getting started. Earlier this month they staged an Occupy Rooftops community solar day where people snapped pictures of rooftops they want to cover in solar panels – how lovely is that?

Solar Schools

Here’s a homegrown example of a crowdfunding platform, dreamed up by our ever-imaginative friends over at 10:10. Of the ten schools piloting the project this year, many are tantalizingly close to reaching their goals – EP Collier School in Reading has raised more than £8,900 of its £10,000 goal, for example. Community members donate anything from £5 upwards to help their local school fund a solar roof, which aside from being a generally warm and fuzzy thing to do, will help school cope with shrinking budgets by massively reducing their utilities bills.

Solar Ivy

For those who want their solar panels to look gorgeous, Solar Ivy does what it says on the tin – the mesh panels mimic the look of ivy growing up the side of a wall. Jumping on the bandwagon so far is the University of Utah, Science World in Vancouver and the Montreal Biosphere.

Solar Power Tower

To the detractors who say solar panels can’t power a city, Spain is fighting back. This avant-garde project in Sanlúcar la Mayor is already up and running. When it’s all completed in 2013, it’s going to power 180,000 homes through a combination of solar heaters, mirror collectors and a steam turbine – generating enough watts to power the nearby city of Seville. So there.

Spray-on solar window film

If we’re going to crack this whole energy security thing, we need multi-tasking homes. A company based in Norway called EnSol has made a super thin spray-on PV coating that will go a long way towards this. You can apply to the spray anything – windows, walls, you name it. It achieves the same efficiency as good old fashioned solar PV cells and it’s completely translucent so you won’t even know it’s there. Or if this sounds too complicated, you could buy windows already treated with PV film.

And if all that isn’t enough to lift your spirits too, I’ll leave you with this final sunny thought.

You’re welcome.

Cleaning up Climate Week?

30th November 2011 by

This week the (R)oyal Bank of Scotland announced that they are cancelling their sponsorship of Climate Week.  This sponsorship arrangement from a bank which used to call itself the ‘Oil and Gas Bank’ was considered nothing more than a bit of nasty greenwash by many organisations and individuals. Letters were written (including this one from us at Otesha), protests were made, and RBS are no longer sponsoring Climate Week.

In our letter addressed to anyone and everyone involved in Climate Week we called for concrete action, rather than rebranding, from the “UK bank most heavily involved in financing fossil fuels”, and argued that “(s)ponsorship from companies with such weak green credentials lends legitimacy to the flawed concept that one small action is a sufficient reaction to climate change and that changing the lightbulbs allows us to continue ‘business as usual’.”

We’re pleased to hear of these cleaning, greening developments: greenwash is a tricky thing to get one’s head around. There are so many familiar questions: Can ‘bad money’ do good? Is a small change better than no change? Would we be able to achieve anything if Lord Greenwash doesn’t give us any money?

It’s incredibly important that the messages we try to spread aren’t undermined, though – so we need to keep on calling out greenwash: letting polluters know that putting a little cash into events like Climate Week won’t save the planet; and that exploiting the earth at the expense of current and future generations as well as the local and global environment is not okay.

Maria Lam of Climate Week says the 2011 event was “the biggest environmental occasion ever run in Britain”.  It’s great to get thousands of people involved, interested and hopefully taking action, and I hope that as Climate Week gets cleaner and greener, more organisations and individuals will feel able to participate.

But aside from ensuring a greenwash-free event, we also need action to be sustained across months and years. Questions about the value of individual media-intensive environmental events could probably give me enough material for at least one more blog, so I’ll leave this here after one last thought: climate change will be for life, folks, not just for Christmas – our actions have to match that.

Warm our cockles

30th October 2011 by

So we had an October heatwave, but let’s not kid ourselves, we all know what’s coming. So this month’s challenge, inspired by our own office ‘winter box’ of communal jumpers, is that we want you to show us all the clever, low-energy, no-energy and low-cost ways you can keep toasty during the chilly months.

Have you knitted yourself a beanie or some slipper socks? Stitched and stuffed a colourful draft-excluder? Done some crafty energy-saving DIY? Or maybe you know what you want to do but need some tips from the Otesha community? Whatever you choose, it’s a great opportunity to save money, cut carbon and learn a new skill (or get even better at an existing one).

We want to see your work and hear your tips and questions, so email us your photos, videos or words. Get cracking!

Blowing hot and cold on wind

19th October 2011 by

A normal conversation whilst visiting my parents house in Wales goes thus:

Me: “Where are you off to Dad?”

Dad: “Just up to see Nora, I’ll be back for lunch.”

Me: “Is she alright? This is the third time you’ve been this week!”

Dad (looking slightly perturbed): “I’m not sure, she’s not been moving much lately – I just want to go and check on her.”

Enter Mum, rolling her eyes: “Are you still going on about Nora????”

Photo by John Williams, Bro Dyfi Community Renewables

Now you may be wondering whether Nora may be an ailing neighbour, or even a mystery female. However, Nora, the woman so close to my dad’s heart, is in fact a wind turbine, formally known as the Nordtank 500, which stands proud and tall on the hill opposite my family home in the heart of Wales.

Nora is one of two turbines owned by Bro Ddyfi Community Renewables, one of the first locally owned energy cooperatives in the UK. The co-op is owned by mainly local shareholders – just normal local people – who want to put their money where their mouths are and create renewable energy for the local community, as well as getting a small return from selling the electricity to the grid. The project was also funded by Ecodyfi, a local NGO dedicated to sustainable development, the project from which is used to tackle energy poverty through providing grants to households for energy efficiency measures.

For many, wind turbines are an emblem of the environmental movement, symbolising the essence of sustainability: harvesting clean, renewable and often cheap energy from the natural environment. Many people, me and my dad included, see wind turbines as things of beauty, majestically gracing the hills and mountains of some of the most stunning landscapes in the world. And all over the country normal people are walking the talk, getting involved with community owned wind projects from Scotland to Oxfordshire in a bid to do their bit in the fight against climate change and other global environmental destruction associated with the oil industry.

However, not everyone shares these views and aspirations. As anyone who lives near a planned wind farm site knows, there is often substantial and vocal opposition to wind power. Driving through small villages in mid-Wales you can see fields littered with increasingly humorous placards proclaiming ‘No to wind’.

Paradoxically, opponents of wind also see themselves as stewards of the environment, although with a slightly different mandate to wind supporters. One MP from mid-Wales called proposals to create a new wind farm ‘environmental vandalism’, citing the usual (and often unsubstantiated) criticisms concerning noise pollution, bird deaths and damage to tourist-luring vistas.

So how is it that members of the same community, who are fighting for the same cause of environmental protection, end up in such embittered conflict over wind? It seems to me to depend on depth of environmental worldview.

Photo by John Williams, Bro Dyfi Community Renewables

People who see the environment as a global and long lasting entity tend to see wind turbines as a necessary tool in fighting climate change, and perhaps are willing to overlook small scale distruption to the local environment. Others, who see the environment as limited to what they see in their gardens, are passionately fighting to limit what they see as destruction of the natural landscape and biodiversity in their locality – resulting in what is commonly known as NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) syndrome.

It would be naive to say that people accused of NIMBYism do not understand the environmental issues at stake. However, it it boils down to how this information is processed, depending on how you look at the world. Some people will put their hard-earned savings into building a wind turbine of their very own, whilst a neighbour may spend long hours planning campaigns to shut it down.

Obviously one of these viewpoints is going to have to change or be overruled, which is why the issue of wind in many communities is such a touchy subject. Perhaps as climate change comes more to the forefront of people’s minds, and the cost of fossil fuels increase as peak oil looms, then attitudes will change. Perhaps the people who support wind should become as vocal as the often minority anti-wind protesters, to show local support  to counteract the resentment.

Maybe it’s up to people like my dad and his friends to change people’s attitudes and show that wind turbines are the lesser of the evils in the quest for a secure energy supply. All I know, as I follow my dad’s gaze to watch a Nora happily spinning round on her hilltop throne (and I’m sure even the most NIMBYistic of my community would agree), is that I’m glad she’s not a hulking great power station.

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