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it’s not easy being green


I am walking the path of many idealistic owner-builders.  You want to use environmentally kind products, you do not want to create waste, you do not want to destroy the landscape and in the end you want to build a healthy, sustainable, carbon neutral home that either creates its own energy or uses very little.

It’s not only about the Earth, as low impact living has an enormous economic advantage. You spend less (or even nothing) on electricity, gas & water; your heating requirements are greatly reduced and your organically grown vegetables are free & healthier. That’s all great, except when it comes to paying the initial outlay. My green dreams began to fade once the global financial crisis had eaten my self invested personal pension. Suddenly solar power, central heating, double glazing and superinsulation are luxuries I can no longer fit into the budget. But why should it be so? green-1

WHY IS SOLAR HOT WATER SO EXPENSIVE IN THIS COUNTRY? Why the hell is solar, and photovoltaic systems in particular, in any country, priced to prohibit them being a standard installation? We have the technology, it’s just that the government does not want to give it to us. Looking at solar in Portugal for a moment: the most prominant products are the same ugly things Australians were putting on their rooves 40 years ago, and yet Germany, that partner in the European Union, has state of the art systems and the highest implementation of them in Europe (or is that the world, I can’t remember).  AND IT’S NOT EVEN VERY SUNNY THERE.

And Portugal’s attempt at a grant scheme for solar hot water installation was so flawed, supplying only particular products through selected suppliers and running the rebates through the banks – what a comedy of corruption, and what an abysmal failure.

SO I ASK – WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH THE WORLD? Isn’t it about time governments realised that it is good business to be green? That there is an enormous demand for the science community to improve the technology for a demanding marketplace and a dying planet? Why not think a little Chinese for a second and work out how many millions are to be made by the manufacturer and distributor of the cheapest domestic sustainable energy supplier, say something under $1000 with a lifetime warranty?

Where is the regulation of distributors? The products themselves do not, as is widely believed, cost a lot to manufacture. It’s the distributors who are responsible firstly for the inadequate supply of quality products and the ramping of prices. Again, slack governments failing to prioritise an area of industry: a lack of ethics on part of government and of the distributors themselves. Haven’t we seen this all before with the pharmaceutical industry?


Everyone says “it’s because governments make so much money from fuel taxes” or “it’s because the oil companies are the most powerful beings in the universe”. Bullshit. Oil is an endangered species. Coal is an endangered species. Finding solutions for alternative energy is the most pressing problem facing all governments – unless of course they are so weak that their only focus is the next election.

WELL WE CAN SEE FARTHER THAN THAT. And most of us reading this live in democracies. I say OUT with any government who does not have strong environmental policies that cast into the future, fund scientific development, engage manufacturers and distributors and deliver real incentives, as in govt or tax rebates, to convert the masses to alternative energy. In return we will consume less, save more, live longer, healthier and more productive lives and not send same government running to the IMF for handouts.


Be cynical as you may, but I still believe in personal responsibility, in human rights, in the fundamental knowledge we all possess of what is just, for all of us and for the Earth we live on. I believe in people having ethical integrity whose wealth and power can rise above the rationalisation of economy, of political process, and of personal greed. A worldwide movement exists which is propelled not by consumption but by sustainability. It is not just about pollution and carbon emissions and beaching whales. It is about the burgeoning realisation that capitalism is a failure, that democracy needs a kick up the arse, and the only way forward economically for the world is to halt consumption, build community and for each person to live self sufficiently, collaboratively and ultimately, peacefully.


I have not given up on my pursuit of green. I’ve used lime instead of cement wherever its engineeringly viable. I’ve recycled clay, stone and timber, I have double insulated the house. I’ve put in a grey water system which diverts everything except toilet and bidet deep into the lawn and I’ve got a sensationally massive 1000L rainwater tank for the horta. The house has passive solar conditions, is cross ventilated, and I’ll have one woodburner and A+ only appliances eventually. Two shopping bags of waste a day are sent to the bin (chiefly full of jaffa cake biscuit wrappings, the site’s favourite) but other than that no construction waste has left my place for landfill. I’m quite proud of that bit.

But to the future. I am steadfast on minimising electric and gas and yet there’s no way I’ve got the money for a solar-plus-recuperador-de-calor set up. The solar part is so tragic, that despite being “sunny Portugal” you cannot rely on it all year round – six months perhaps, because the cheaper systems available here are reliant on sunshine and not light.


Hence, my solution has been brought to me by the excellent people of Raiz Verde, one of the very few alternative energy companies in Portugal with a palpable level of integrity, and not one of those who want to sell you overpriced obsolete technology and a whole lot of bullshit. I remember a funny conversation with a guy in such an alternative energy shop who had no faith in reflective foil insulation because “the light can’t get into the air space between the bricks”… if you can’t differentiate between light and heat then perhaps you’re in the wrong business?

Anyway Raiz Verde has offered me the Sunpack heat exchanger system at a drastically generously reduced price and it would be criminal of me not to go for it. It is such a sexy system, so simple, and slightly beyond my comprehension. This is what it’s all about (straight from their website I confess):

A simple principle and an efficient way of using energy from the sun, the wind and the rain. The SunPack Heat Pump works on a thermodynamic principle and is based on the use of an evaporator panel. This panel captures the free energy which exists in direct and diffuse solar radiation, the rain and the wind. The energy is then transferred to a heat exchanger in the storage tank, heating the water inside at a cost approximately a fifth that of conventional systems.


The evaporator panel is fixed on the outside, capturing energy in the form of direct solar and / or diffuse solar, wind, rain and air. The panel extracts the available energy in the environment, the refrigerant in the panel boils and returns to the compressor as gas, where the heat is extracted and passed to the body of stored water via a high efficiency heat exchanger. Once the heat from the gas has been extracted, the gas returns to its liquid form as it cools and the process repeats, bringing the body of stored water to the desired temperature. With a power consumption of only 390W, the system can provide water at between 55ºC and 60ºC all year round, 24 hours per day, even on rainy days in the winter. Given that most of the energy is harnessed from nature, up to 80% of all the hot water obtained is free, which will significantly reduce your energy bill.

From me all it requires is the space for the cylinder, as in a new small enclosure attached to an existing shed and a space above the vines for the panel. It’s a beautiful thing. But even at the wonderful price of $1750 plus tax and transport and stuff, it is still outside my budget. So I’m appealing to you all who visit emmashouseinportugal.com, who’ve enjoyed the story and the journey, to make a little donation, and to do what is good and what is right, and to help me to fulfill my promises.

There’s a supportbutton to the right and below.

With huge thanks to Simon Sharp for his expertise and input.


  1. Ion July 29, 2014 3:59 pm Reply

    You’re a good wordsmith and I like to read something funny and clever that doesn’t dumb down what’s left of English.

    I’ve heard eco-rants like yours ad nauseam. Our “leaders” are driving our sustainability buses over a cliff.

    Yet, having just blamed government, much blame should go to the consumer. We do have choices…

    Here in Ottawa, Canada, we suffer badly from overbuilding and uncreative urban design. I have been on too many committees, ranting myself hoarse to a smug group of overpaid cretins who have destroyed so much character of this city, once full of parks and woodlots.

    In the ‘50s and ‘60s my father had a good income but wasn’t frivolous: we lived in a modest home and my mother, from old Austro-Hungary had a giant vedge’ crop in our tiny back yard, grew fragrant flowers to scent the house, and baked marvelous rye bread. We were big tea drinkers (in a glass with lemon and honey of course) and I think if she could she would have had her own tea plantation.

    Our furniture was rebuilt; our clothes were always mended and my shoes were re-soled till they were worn down to flip flops. Use little and save lots…

    I spent years working in automotive repairs, and motorcycle sales and repair (had my own shop). I won’t go on about the choking crud from those old low compression carburetor engines. Modern cars are so much cleaner burning….but they still chuck stuff out the pipe and there’s so many more of them. Electric cars were around in 1905. If we could just let go of the internal combustion engine…

    I wanted to go to New Zealand years ago to start a bike shop, but didn’t raise the capital. Then I had plans to go to Portugal as its quality of life (and food) seemed wonderful. Your website’s giving me ideas…

    Cheers and ice cold beers.

    [Reply to comment]

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