Robert Llewelyn: If you have to burn stuff to make it, it's not 'green'

Actor, presenter, geek and electric car fan Robert Llewellyn opens a series of columns on green tech with a rant about, er, calling it 'green tech'.

Robert Llewellyn Columnist
Robert Llewellyn is a writer, TV presenter and occasional actor. He is best known for his role as Kryten in the long-running BBC series Red Dwarf. He presented the engineering show Scrapheap Challenge for ten years on Channel 4, more recently he has been producing two web-only video series, Carpool and Fully Charged. He has published ten books, with an 11th due early 2012.
Robert Llewellyn
5 min read

Call me an old curmudgeon, but I don't like the words 'green' and 'eco' when they're applied to anything that doesn't grow in soil. I sometimes mutter as much as I stomp around my vegetable garden, kicking snails and grumbling about human frailty. Actually most of my human frailty is in the lower back area from digging, but that's off topic.

I know green and eco are journalistic shorthand, I know that some people don't use them as terms of abuse or belittlement, but anything made in a factory out of materials that have been dug out of the ground, processed and shipped around the world is surely not green. It's a manufactured product that uses resources and energy in order to be created.

I'm also not saying that producing such machinery or products is bad. Despite my vegetable growing I don't wish to return to a medieval subsistence agricultural economy where we are all utterly in touch with nature -- as in, we live short, cold, uncomfortable lives riddled with disease and we only make 43 years tops.

However, if when we make something big and complex, it's able to carry out its function doing the minimum amount of damage to the world, I can't help thinking it might be a good thing.

Feel the burn

Essentially it comes down to flames, to fire, to combustion. It really is that basic. If we have to burn something in order to make something else work, then we can't classify that product as sustainable or renewable. We certainly can't ascribe it the shorthand 'green' or 'eco'. When we burn stuff, it makes it very hard to use that stuff again. I don't know much about physics, but ash doesn't have many uses other than keeping slugs off your lettuce.

burning car

Developments in the field of generating and using energy without burning stuff are currently gripping my attention. It gripped my attention in the early 1970s due to the entirely politically spawned 'oil crisis' of that era, then we all forgot about it until about 10 years ago. Now, things have really moved on -- the technology for non-burning systems has leapt ahead.

(Note to the reader: please read the next bit as if it were a gravelly-voiced trailer for a blockbuster.)

"Since the dawn of man, fire has given us power. Fire has helped create the world we know, fire is the tool that has allowed us to progress from the treetop, to the cave, to the modern high-tech home. Without fire, we would be nothing."

Yeah, okay, but maybe it's time to move on. We've burnt a lot of stuff in the last 20,000 years. We've burnt a staggering amount in the last 200 years. Right now we're burning stuff at a rate that makes your eyes water and your throat hurt. More or less every action we take in the modern world is only possible because somewhere in the process we've burnt something.

The question facing us now is can we do any of those things without burning stuff? And if we can, should we maybe make a bit of effort to do so?

This, fundamentally, is what got me interested in electric cars. They're just the same as the cars we're all used to, but in order to move, they don't need to burn stuff. Oh, I know that at present part of the energy that drives them is generated as a result of burning stuff, but it doesn't have to be. I also accept there are things we can burn to generate power that aren't dug or drilled out of the ground -- agricultural waste, coppiced woodland and so on -- but to have the over-arching aim of reducing 'the burn' may be a good target.

Solar, so good

For the last three months I've had a set of solar panels on the roof of my office. It's still almost just a gesture, but it's a gesture that has so far generated 900kWh. To put that into context, 1 kilowatt hour is enough to run ten 100W bulbs for an hour. It's a chunky amount of juice. The average three-bedroom semi-detached house in the UK uses between 10 and 15 kilowatt hours a day.

I want to inform overseas readers that we've had a classic British summer this year -- mostly cloudy, dull and depressing. But 900kWh of electricity without burning anything is still a mini achievement in my book.

This is the core of my still developing argument. I'm not suggesting that the few of us who have a suitable roof and enough money shove up a handful of solar panels can sit back, feel smug and it's job done.

solar panel man

That said, if you do have a suitable roof and enough spare cash, you'd be bonkers not to do it. In the UK we're way behind the rest of Europe. A statistic I became aware of when in Germany recently is that they have half the world's entire stock of solar panels already installed.

They are now producing 17 per cent of their electricity using renewable systems (2 per cent from solar). We in the UK reach about 4 per cent at the moment, at best. There are complex arguments about the financial sense of making this huge investment in solar, but the 'feed in tariff' Germany invented to incentivise adoption is something we finally adopted in the UK last year.

However, my first hand experience of the 14 solar panels on my roof has so far been very positive. I try and ignore both fanatics and naysayers and learn from direct experience.

Against incredible resistance from both deliberate lobbying and ill-informed bias, these technologies are emerging at an increasingly rapid rate.

It's a very exciting period of change -- in many ways a second industrial revolution. It needs immense support to help it reach the tipping point, and it needs determination from all of us to get off the burn grind.

Yes it's complicated, yes it's expensive to install, but against what we are constantly told by the oil and coal lobby, it is possible. It's not only possible, in the long run it's hugely cheaper to operate and not so reliant on dodgy suppliers. My starting thesis, which I hope to develop over the coming months is that it is possible to build a highly developed technological society that doesn't need to burn stuff to survive and prosper.

  • Robert Llewellyn is a writer, TV presenter and occasional actor. He is best known for his role as Kryten in the long-running BBC series Red Dwarf. He presented the engineering show Scrapheap Challenge for 10 years on Channel 4, more recently he's been producing two Web-only video series, Carpool and Fully Charged. He's published 10 books, and his eleventh comes out early 2012.