Alan Simpson is on a crusade. He’s fed up with the UK’s squandering of energy and he wants to put a stop to it. ‘The national grid is monumentally inefficient as an energy system,’ he says. ‘It was a half-decent idea for the middle of the last century, but 70 to 80 per cent of energy put into the grid disappears before you or I even switch the light on.’
As the Member of Parliament for Nottingham South over the past 12 years, Simpson has been campaigning to highlight how our profligate use of energy is crippling the environment. In an ideal world, Simpson says, he would like to see every home in the country generate at least some of its own power. In an even better world, he would scrap the national grid altogether, and replace it with a localised system relying on thousands of contributions from domestic power generators, rather than have the centralised and inefficient system we use today.
So far, though, he feels he has been ignored. Nothing has changed, and he’s getting frustrated. ‘One of the great problems in British society is that we are paralysed by the status quo,’ Simpson says. ‘It’s a mentality that says, this is the way we’ve always done it, so we can’t do it any other way. The contrast is with somewhere like the Netherlands, where 60 per cent of their energy comes from decentralised systems that retain, rather than waste, 80 per cent of the energy they generate. We could run this country twice over on the energy that we throw away.’
In fact, so exasperated has Simpson become that he has taken it upon himself to show that, if we really want it, there is an alternative to the status quo. For the past two years, and at a personal cost of around £300,000, he has helped to design, supervise and build his very own eco-home.
Far from the mud hut or wigwam of popular stereotype, Simpson's eco-house is airy, modern and stylish. His aim is for it to be entirely self-sufficient, recycling all the grey water from showers and washing, and generating its own energy, enough to allow him to sell back to the national grid, so instead of monthly bills, he'd be receiving cheques.
At the time of my visit, however, the house is a scene of chaos. His wife Pascale and young baby have only just moved in and they are still living out of boxes. The builders still haven't quite finished the job, so there are piles of discarded building materials lying around outside. But the chaos does nothing to dampen Simpson's clear enthusiasm for the project as he launches into an explanation of how it came into being.
How it all started
His interest in energy issues grew when, as a community worker, he began campaigning on behalf of the 'fuel poor' - the elderly and the deprived who can't afford to heat their homes. When he entered Parliament twelve years ago, he helped to pioneer new legislation that eventually led to a commitment by the government to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016.
But Simpson's work on fuel poverty also opened his eyes to what he regarded as an inextricable link between domestic energy consumption and climate change. He saw how much energy was being wasted and realised this would need to be tackled if there was to be any answer to the world's most pressing problem.
'We can't survive this century unless we change fundamentally the built environment,' he says. 'We have to move from thinking of buildings being just consumers of energy and to thinking of them as generators of electricity.'
Equally, though, he began to realise the limitations of what he could achieve as a politician. True, he had successfully helped to change the law on fuel poverty. But with energy security and efficiency he felt there were more practical things he could do. 'It struck me that if people like me who campaign about how to tackle this problem head on don't do things ourselves, there is a credibility gap that is difficult to live with,' he says.
After making up his mind to build an eco-home, Simpson set out to find suitable premises. Instead of starting from scratch, Simpson says he decided to refurbish an existing building to show that eco-building principles could be applied to old as well as new homes.
He recalls the day when a friend called to alert him to an abandoned lace mill he'd discovered. He said: 'If you're looking for somewhere derelict, look no further - this place hasn't been occupied for 40 or 50 years. It has nothing in it, no services, the internal stairs have collapsed; it's just you, 4000 pigeons and all the pigeon shit you can shovel.'
It's now two years on, and Simpson's house is scrubbing up pretty well. From the outside, it's nothing much to look at. It's a stand-alone building in a backstreet of Nottingham's trendy Lace Market area. Approaching visitors are confronted with the large windowless back wall of the house that gives it a rather gloomy aspect. Certainly, there's nothing from its outward appearances to suggest it's an eco-home.
The house that Alan built
But all the interesting bits are carefully tucked away. Hidden from view three stories up, the south-facing roof of the house is made up entirely of solar panels that provide the house with around 75 per cent of its power. Inside, complementing the solar unit is a Whispergen micro-combined heat and power (CHP) generator, producing electricity at the same time as it heats the house. 'The idea is that you're much more likely to be using your boiler in the evening when the sun's not out,' Simpson explains. Together, these provide a potentially limitless source of power. And in due course, once Simpson has settled in, he plans to begin selling the excess energy he generates back to the power company. This could happen in one of two ways, Simpson says. 'One way is just to sell the energy back to the grid; the other is to sell carbon-free energy that I generate. I haven't decided which one to go for yet.'
But the biggest energy-saving aspect of the house, according to Simpson, is its insulation. Huge amounts of heat in a home are lost through the roof and walls, and some 20 per cent through single-glazed windows.
So, while he generates his own power through green technologies, Simpson has also tried to minimise the amount the house actually consumes by installing extensive insulation throughout - in the loft, on the exterior walls in the form of a recycled paper and plastic render, and by double-glazing all the windows. All the internal walls are made from compressed recycled straw, which is an excellent heat and sound insulator, Simpson says. At the very least, he expects, in the long term, to make a 15-per-cent return on the amount he paid for insulating his house properly - and possibly by as much as 25 per cent as energy prices go up.
And insulation is even employed to aesthetic effect in one of the house's main design features. Although he wanted to stick to his eco principles, Simpson was keen that the property shouldn't end up looking drab. In the end, he found a way of combining both these aims by cladding a two-storey high wall in the kitchen/living area entirely in large lengths of recycled cardboard tubing - 'somewhere between bog rolls and cardboard organ pipes', Simpson jokes. 'It's basically a six-metre high wall of toilet roll,' he says, patting the tubes fondly. 'But it's all recycled and thermally efficient, and it's been made fireproof so it won't contribute to the instant demise of the place.'
Elsewhere in the house, maximum use is made of natural lighting to minimise the use of electricity. The floor above the main stairwell that stretches three quarters of the height of the house has been made out of a tough weight-bearing glass that allows light from large skylights in the roof to flood through. One of the windows in this space is also made from the cut-off ends of wine bottles to create a kind of arty double-glazing.
But it hasn't all turned out quite as he'd planned. One of the big compromises he had to make was on his plans to install a wind turbine on the roof which, it turned out, wouldn't have suited the house's enclosed location. 'You have to have a constant windstream to get the best value out of a windmill,' he says. 'In an urban context, we weren't convinced we were going to get that.'
The other big problem with the house, at least in terms of the ideological point he's trying to make with it, is, of course, its cost. In all, he paid around £300,000 - £100,000 for the building and £200,000 for the refurbishment. This is all very well when you've got a tidy MPs salary going into the bank each month, but what good is this going to be for people who are pushed even to buy an energy-efficient light-bulb?
'It is one-off, and I accept that,' Simpson concedes. Nevertheless, he believes there is a lot more that government could do through tax breaks and grants to make green technologies affordable. And, as a naturally anti-free-market politician, he is also keen to see the construction industry forced to adopt technologies such as micro-generation and insulation as standard.
He likens it to the situation in the last century when the UK's cities had massive problems with public health and smog,' he says. 'For years, governments tried to encourage industry to cut back on pollution - and no one took any notice. In the end, the government of the day introduced the Clean Air Act, and they gave industry a three-year period and said, after that, it's illegal - you'll be fined.
'People were screaming and shouting, but the reality was that business stayed in business; it was just cleaner. And it became cleaner by obligation as a result of legislation. It's exactly the same as what we've got to do now. It isn't rocket science; it's just a matter of incorporating these things into standard design requirements for the 21st century.'
The big no-no as far as Simpson's concerned is what many fear is now inevitable: the resurgence of nuclear power as the answer to the pending energy crisis. 'Nuclear was a scam again,' he says. 'It is utterly irrelevant to providing the energy security of Britain in the 21st century and, in fact, would probably steal most of the financial resources needed to move us towards a genuinely sustainable situation.'
Simpson is in a hurry to get to his next appointment, so I take my leave. But as I do, I suddenly wonder at his motivation for all of this. The hard work seems to have paid off and resulted in a fascinating home, but it seems an awful lot of effort to have gone to just to make a point. He is, after all, an MP and, therefore, not averse to the odd eye-catching publicity stunt. Is this just a ruse to win a few more votes, or does he really hope to achieve something bigger by doing this?
'I don't know how much of a vote winner it will be,' Simpson shrugs. 'But this excites me more than anything I've ever known: micro-generation has the potential to transform the world in a way that previous generations have only been able to wish for. It would also provide us with greater energy security. You can understand how easy it would be for Al-Qaeda to target a nuclear-energy station. A hit on a solar energy roof doesn't quite have the same clout, does it?'
Ben Willis is a freelance journalist
This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2006