New Internationalist

Solar panels and chickens

The carnivalesque mood of the river continues. The other day a very pretty wooden launch slipped silently past at great speed. Only as it reached the sharp bend upstream and went ‘toot! toot!’, emitting a little cloud of vapour, did I realise the launch was powered by steam. Suddenly there were half-a-dozen of the things, all very beautiful - and, I’m told, expensive - steered by gents in eccentric hats who perched brass kettles on polished boilers and said such things as ‘time for a cup of tea, I think’. For the next hour or so there was a procession of them, heading off up-river for some sort of convention, no doubt.

My inflatable dinghy or ‘tender’ continues deflated and resistant to repair. I have, however, finally made it to the pubs across the river by going on a long detour in the car. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the place had the feel of a tiny seaside resort, dominated by large areas of asphalt, lopsided parasols, benches covered with empty beer glasses, notices for boat trips and young men on the verge of coming to blows. Through all this two intrepid horsewomen in hard hats picked their way disdainfully.

My companion and I walked along the path beside the river that runs through a wooded ravine right into the nearby city, its tranquility shattered from time to time by express trains thundering unseen through the trees on the other side.

Soon, the serious work on my barge will begin, though I have been advised to relax and get to know the thing a bit better first, until it no longer feels like a giant toy. Apart from repairing some parts of the steel hull - which will be a major undertaking in a dockyard - my first priority is to tackle the energy question.

Currently I rely on a diesel generator for electricity. I am intent on substituting as much of this as possible with renewables. Before I moved here I thought of using solar energy in summer and wind energy in winter. Apparently there are snags with wind turbines. Reluctant to turn in turbulent winds, they are prone to sending constant vibrations through the boat, which can be vexing to live with.

So, despite the fact that autumn approaches, I shall begin with solar panels. This turns out, naturally enough, to be a minefield. Internet research produces a bewildering variety of options, most of them requiring complex calculations which are quite beyond me.

Pete, though for a long time a ‘gennie man’, has finally been convinced by solar panels for his next barge, which is still in Holland. Ever a man for a bargain, he is suggesting we all pool our resources to get some sort of good deal. The cheapest current offer is for panels made in California and designed for use in deserts. Despite the heat and drought here at the moment, conditions resembling the California deserts seem a long way off as yet.

So I’ve talked to someone in London who, besides being an electrical engineer who lives on a boat, is doing some academic research. He suggests German panels, designed for use in northern Europe. In my circumstances they’d probably pay for themselves in a couple of years, he says, and many times over in the years thereafter.

There’s no gauge on the fuel tank for the generator, so I’ve been filling it up, at more or less arbitrary intervals, from the marina in the city, carrying the stuff back in my car in large plastic containers - an expensive, dangerous, smelly, messy, laborious and, of course, eco-unfriendly process, with fossil fuels swilling all around me.

So it was a pleasant surprise to discover, the last time I did this, that the tank was already almost full. My consumption had been considerably less than I had imagined. It will be reduced much further when I can replace the computer I’m using now, that needs mains power from the generator, with a laptop.

Meanwhile, the chickens have taken up residence. Confined initially to their hutch and a pen covered with camouflage, these splendid, vain creatures are now strutting about the hillside, occasionally even producing an egg. I don’t think we ever mean to eat the chickens, though I doubt whether the foxes have agreed to follow suit. Despite the six acres of the site and vigorous discouragement from us, the pampered birds invariably head straight for the organic vegetables.

Two quarrelling herons have now perched on the barge. A seagull has taken to fishing in the river, swooping down, skimming the surface with feet I presume are webbed and therefore pretty useless, stabbing with its beak. Eventually it caught a tiny fish and dropped it.

If I still lived in the city I may not have reacted with the same contempt to a thing called ‘The Moral Maze’ on the radio the other evening. Factotum pundits quizzed expert witnesses about climate change. A shared assumption, at least among the more indolent pundits, seemed to be that middle-class-guilt - now pretty much a compound noun - is driving a fashion-conscious power-grab by joyless puritans who have no regard for the Third World.

The thought that it might actually be more fun to grapple with some of these problems in a practical way than to sound off about them in a radio studio never seemed to trouble them. I hope they get lost in their own middle-class-moral-maze.

It’s true that I can watch the events in, say, Lebanon, with an even greater sense of impotent detachment than I might have felt in a house. No-one has yet suggested that we launch a protest flottilla, though the possibilities for flying flags and banners are much enhanced.

Even so, as floating trailer trash, it’s a lot easier to sense what it might be like to find a leaflet falling from the sky that tells me, on pain of death, to get lost.

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