Harnessing chickens

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The Independent Online
A couple of years ago I spent a few days on the paradise island of Mauritius. Palms, coral reefs, lagoons of sparkling blue - you know the scene.

The best thing about the place was that it had every sort of religion and race all mucking along pretty well. And I was struck by the way that the corrugated tin micro- palaces in which people lived were mostly powered by bottled gas made from chicken manure.

I was not thinking as laterally as I should have been, and did not connect our green heaven with the tropical volcanic lump; but Hereford is the chicken-plucking capital of Europe. Those farmers who are unable to enrich themselves by selling land for housing development have sheds full of poultry which ends its life in Sun Valley's huge and important works in the city. We are awash in chicken manure and the litter on which the birds have spent their short and (towards the end) very crowded lives.

Now, the county is agog. Someone is seriously proposing a chicken-shit power station in the city. There is, of course, discussion about the smells that may escape and no doubt many feathers are ruffled. Still, other things being equal, the scheme for the new power station is excellent news.

I am just as keen to see lots of windmills sprouting. Country life is, of course, an ecological disaster compared to the relative soundness of metropolitan life. In the country, everything we do consumes prodigious quantities of energy as we jump in our cars to achieve even the smallest village task, as water is pumped to us clean and pumped away dirty, and as postmen and every sort of tradesman truck out to us. The least we can do is to generate such energy as we can.

So it was a double pleasure to see Sir Simon Gourlay and his wife, Caroline, on their wild, high farm just over the border in Powys. They are a thoughtful couple, and when Sir Simon was president of the National Farmers' Union he spared no one's feelings as he tried to convince the farming industry about what taxpayers and 'country-lovers' expected of it.

Now he wants to build a pounds 7m wind-turbine farm on his land. Being a farmer, Sir Simon will, of course, receive substantial grant aid for the new scheme. Windfarms are heavily subsidised by subventions from the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation everyone pays on their fuel bills. We won't learn about wind energy unless we subsidise it for the time being. Within 10 years, it will probably come into its own, as its fossil fuel competitors begin to be penalised for their greenhouse effect. But if not, we can take down the wind turbines a damn sight quicker than we can decommission nuclear power stations.

It is, by the way, depressing to see the British nuclear industry knocking wind power. The two should be going hand-in-hand as subsidised technologies with an uncertain future, high capital costs, and a deal of public opposition to meet. The great lesson here is that the Green Tendency has to learn that ecology and cosinesss do not always march hand-in-hand. In the case of a switch from fossil to nuclear power, we can avoid one risk only by incurring another. In the case of wind power, we can have environmentally sound energy only by taking the aesthetic risk of changing our landscape.

My own efforts at ecological responsibility have run into the sands. In palmier days, I bought a Stelrad Turbo condensing boiler for a prodigious sum. It was supposed to save me a fortune by sipping energy rather than guzzling it, and to be awfully clean in its emissions. Four years later, it sprang a leak in its heat exchanger, a piece of metal that would cost about pounds 1,000 to replace. Stelrad says these things don't spring leaks unless they've been wrongly installed, and British Gas says it installed it by the book. Hey ho. I appear to have fallen between two stools.

British Gas in Hereford has done what I think is the honourable thing. It has offered to sell me a new, conventional, no-frills (rather wasteful) boiler at cost, and it is installing it free. I promise myself, as doubtless millions of other people do, that I shall be green one day. In particular, I shall be green when I can afford the luxury of it again.

My economic renaissance may be about a year away. I have at last finished my latest substantial tome, which says that with any luck at all the planet can accommodate something like 10 billion people in something like good shape. Manchester University Press is bringing the book out in the early spring of 1995. We are calling it Life On a Modern Planet. I only hope the reader has as much fun confronting my prejudices as I did.