My week without power

(Photo: courtesy Creative Commons)

Photo: courtesy Creative Commons

A final-year student homeowner struggling to pay my mortgage with a combination of student loans and dwindling savings, I’m always after ways to save money. I’m also environmentally responsible. With power bills both in the news and on the increase, the chance to go “off grid” for a week seems well timed.
My building doesn’t have gas so even hot water and heating are supplied electrically. At 5pm Friday I turn off my mains power. Except for a rechargeable battery bought on eBay for my laptop, to be used solely for university work, my electricity-free week’s commenced.
Friday evenings I usually unwind after a stressful week at university with some music, red wine and a ready meal before catching up on the week’s TV. After a particularly bad day the setting sun forces me to turn on two small battery-powered lamps a friend loaned me. With my battery-powered radio for entertainment I pour myself a glass of wine but this does little to improve my mood.
Despite the lamps’ light my flat’s still dark. I’m tired and listening to the radio in a gloomy flat, while trying to catch up on some recreational reading is not an especially relaxing end to a hard week. Apart from darkness, the most noticeable aspect is the silence. It’s amazing how used to the background hum of the fridge and other electronic devices you become and how much you miss them when they’re absent.
Already dreading tomorrow morning and the prospect of no hot water I decide I won’t subject myself to that particular ordeal. Therefore unless I make it to the gym I’ll just manage without.
Lacking the numerous electrical distractions I’m usually afforded via the TV, Internet and stereo, time so far seems to move more slowly: seconds become minutes, minutes become hours… you get the idea. This may be because the battery-operated living room clock seems much louder than usual but, I suspect, is more likely because I’m without the aforementioned devices.
Before bed as I clean my teeth with my electric toothbrush I realise I’ll need to buy a manual one tomorrow as the charge won’t last all week and this is something I can’t do without.
I’m delighted to see daylight the next morning. I still keep going to turn on lights as a matter of habit however and filled the kettle for my morning coffee before remembering I can’t boil it. Normally lazing about the flat until after midday, today I’m out the door before 11.
As the clocks go back that night, the following day my east-facing flat gets dark even earlier and, with a big storm due and temperatures expected to drop, I need encouragement.
I consider the energy I’m saving, an average of 11kWh over the week and decide to discuss this with an environmental campaign group like Friends of the Earth (FoE) who I expect will applaud my sacrifice. I’m in for a disappointment though.
“It’s a really laudable thing to go for,” agreed FoE energy campaigner Guy Shrubsole, after I explain how I’m living.
“Some of our work in the past has been more to do with encouraging micro-generation so people can have access to things like solar panels on their roofs, being able to install small-scale wind power and things like that.
“But we’ve mainly done work to allow people to try to sell that electricity back in to the grid so although there’s a greater degree of self-reliance, they’re not completely off-grid. People tend to struggle if they have to generate all their power themselves just for a domestic setting. So we’re much more supportive of opening up the market, the electricity sector, of giving power back to the people and decentralising power.”
He sees one of the biggest problems living this way is sheer impracticality, due to the amount of electricity generating equipment necessary to invest in capable of balancing out the differing highs and lows in both energy demand and supply. This equipment, as I’ve discovered from my online research, is not cheap. For even extremely basic kit, prices begin at over a thousand pounds. Proponents argue this eventually pays for itself, but if you’re on a tight budget how do you overcome this in the short-term?
“Some of the rates you can now get for the feed-in tariff [the money you receive for any excess power produced] for solar panel installation are still quite a good investment and something that’s being taken up by quite a lot of people around the country,” Mr Shrubsole said.
“But I think there’s a greater reluctance to do so because the government keep fiddling with the rates for it… and that’s obviously been very disruptive to the industry and disruptive to public uptake.”
As my week continues things don’t become easier. I begin to dread coming home to a flat that since Sunday night’s big storm and the end of BST, became noticeably colder and gloomier than before. I really miss my morning coffee and although I can go downstairs and across the road to a cafe it’s not the same. I’ve come dangerously close to cheating by using the computer battery to boil the kettle several times.
I’m already sick of washing my face in cold water every morning. It’s no substitute for a hot shower and I have too much work due to get to the gym even if it is only to wash. From the smell of my armpits I really should man up and use the face-washer to at least give them a clean. But if I’m suffering, anyone silly enough to get close to me with the miserable look now constantly on my face, deserves what they get.
From my window I jealously watch light warmly flicker through windows across the street. However even at the climax of my self-pity party I remember I at least have a choice. This is entirely voluntary. For hundreds of thousands of elderly, unemployed and low-earners forced to decide between paying their electricity bill or whether they eat, this must be truly depressing.
Arriving home Wednesday night, my flat’s really losing heat, forcing me to wear extra layers. Again I’m lucky – the cold weather’s barely begun and my triple glazing and modern building materials mean the flat’s hardly freezing, another reason for environmental groups like FoE’s shift away from self-sustainability.
“…even if they’ve not managed it entirely…they’ve been mostly satisfied but perhaps in equal measures frustrated at the difficulties in doing so. We don’t think it’s necessarily viable for a large percentage of the population…,” says Mr Shrubsole, referring to attempts to live off-grid.
“We’re much more interested in promoting the sustainability of the whole system we’ve got in the UK. Whether that means retrofitting housing with better insulation, which is a really vital thing we need to be doing or powering the country with cleaner energy from large scale and community level renewables.”
My own powerless week drags on. I really need to try to get to the gym for a shower later as I’m starting to gross myself out now and just feel dirty. Not in a nice way either.
Even in daylight, as nice as it is to see where everything is, my normally tidy flat resembles a tip – there’s stuff everywhere. I need to consider doing dishes, a chore, that with a dishwasher, I haven’t done for ages. I’m putting utensils in the sink but they’re piling up and starting to smell almost as badly as I do.
I didn’t need to hear this morning’s weather forecast to know last night was autumn’s coldest so far. I dreamt about blankets and woke up shivering. I really am sick of being cold.
That night switching on my two battery powered friends, I realize why I squinted more than usual attempting to read the paper the previous evening after finishing my studies. There’s a circle of less than three inches of dim light beneath each – I need new batteries.
The extra light makes me feel (a little!) better already. Now if only I’d had the money or foresight to have obtained a battery-powered heater but the winter duvet’s on now so I won’t dream of bedding tonight.
With two nights left, I’m counting the minutes until this nightmare is over. Even now I still futilely attempt to turn on lights whenever I enter a room. I’m forced to take these wretched lamps everywhere even the toilet and the batteries keep coming loose. I’m itchy, miserable and fantasize about the long hot shower I’ll have to scrub the filth off myself, the clean sheets I’ll sleep in and the heating on full-power while I open half a bottle of red and eat a hot meal naked in front of the TV. Tonight it’s cold (ish) chicken and salad again.
It’s also Halloween and if any kid dares knock on my door they’ll be told in no uncertain terms where they can put their Snickers. Roll on Friday.

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