Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Greening the Meeting House - the story of Cotteridge Local Quaker Meeting (Birmingham)

This week's posting comes from Harriet Martin. Harriet is a retired Near Eastern archaeologist, university lecturer and primary school teacher. She and her husband, Chris, used the skills they gained in the Cotteridge Meeting improvements to refurbish a 1932 semi, now granted "Old Home Super Home" status. As a Resource Person for the Quaker Living Witness Project she has helped run environmental workshops in a number of Quaker meetings.

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The Cotteridge Quaker Meeting House Story

Energy Saving Achievements of Cotteridge Quaker Meeting: with careful analysis, determination, and a concerted effort, 90% reductions in fossil fuel use are possible! Between 2004 and 2010 Cotteridge Quaker Meeting has reduced its energy use by more than 70%. In addition, we are now generating 20% of our original usage. Thus our current energy usage is down to about 10% of our 2004 starting point.

When Cotteridge Quakers started on this road in 2005 we did not know how far we could travel. We stepped forward in faith. We were driven by a concern for our planet and, more prosaically, by a desire to be comfortably warm in meeting.

As we made improvements, our gradually decreasing meter readings were a source of encouragement and strength. Generous gifts of time and money from members of the meeting as well as our growing fuel savings enabled projects to continue.

In retrospect we can see that it was not so much that we 'stepped out on to a road'; rather, we climbed onto a cycle. The cycle wheel went round and round, propelling our projects forward. We repeated time and again the same sequence: problem identification and analysis, Premises Committee suggestions, Business Meeting decisions, fund raising, action, feedback. Members of the meeting who consistently volunteered time and practical skills as well as finance were our energy source. As the cycle turned there was a constant background click of computer keys as the warden read our meters and the convener of our Sustainable Living Group entered them onto spreadsheets for analysis. Encouraging graphs emerged which drove the cycle forward again and again with new actions identified, analyzed, agreed, acted on and tracked by electric meter. Our Quaker community was strengthened, energised and cheered time and again.

As we cycled through the years we added another cog in the wheel gearing, external fund-raising through awards and grants from trusts and governmental bodies. The evidence of our graphs and the enthusiastic efforts of volunteering Friends began to give a Midas touch to our application forms.

The actions we took and the effects they had are mapped on the graph below and then described in detail.

double-click on the table to see an enlarged version and click the 'back' arrow to return to the blog

Detailed chronicle of change at Cotteridge Meeting:

Our meeting house was a good example of experimental 1960s architecture. Pevsner remarked favourably on its (single glazed) glass walls. Walls were solid, three bricks thick. All heating was electric. In the meeting room, powerful storage heaters sat in deep recesses in the walls, separated by a wall one brick thick from the outside. There were eighteen 150W spotlights in the main meeting room plus ten 78W fluorescent strip lights, a total of 3.5kW every time all of the lights were turned on. There was about 5cm of insulation above the ceilings and the in a small void under the felted roof.
We were using somewhat more than 50,000 kWh each year.

• Our new Living Witness Group conducted an audit of the building, identifying the wasteful systems of lighting and heating in addition to the poorly insulated windows, walls and roof.
• Meeting transferred its electricity account to Good Energy which, in theory, comes from 100% renewable sources.
• We calculated heat losses from the roof, walls, windows, floors of the meeting house rooms to assess the probable effects of different insulation measures.
• We replaced the lights with energy efficient alternatives and disconnected half of the fluorescent strips, reducing consumption from 3.5 to 0.9 kW.
• We replaced single glazing with argon filled double glazed units in seven large and high windows in the main meeting room.
Results: Energy consumption dropped by 11%.

• Following the failure of two storage heaters in the meeting room and after extensive consultations and investigations, meeting decided to install an air to air ashp (air source heat pump) in the meeting room in combination with an air distribution unit made by a different manufacturer.

Fitting the air source heat pump

• It took eighteen months before we resolved all of the issues with this installation (noise from poor installation of ducting, noise from a damper accidentally shut, icing up of external unit resulting from a sensor not being turned off). Meeting was very patient and those involved in the Premises Committee were very persistent in seeking solutions. Using a data logger to map the temperature and the activity of the heat pump when the room was unoccupied was key to our final understanding and resolution of the problems.
Results: Energy consumption dropped by a further 17% (28% total saving).

• The two largest walls with the worst heat loss issues in the meeting room were lined on the inside with 57mm of insulation foam bonded onto 12 mm of plaster board. The improved walls were plaster skimmed. The meeting room benches were reshaped. The entire meeting room was redecorated. Insulated linings were added to the curtains.
Results: Energy consumption dropped by another 17% (45% total saving).

• By early spring our issues with the original ashp installation were resolved and the benefits were clear. We agreed to carry the same pattern of improvements into the other main rooms.
• In March Jon Garrett of Encraft surveyed the meeting house as part of the government Community Action for Energy (CAfE) project. The report confirmed the priorities already established and encouraged us to plan eventually for solar PV on our classroom roof.
• We received £1,000 from the Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy.
• Air to air ashps replaced storage heaters in the foyer and in the classrooms.
• The foyer and classrooms were dry lined with insulation foam bonded on plaster board.
Results: Energy consumption dropped by a further 2% despite the winter months being on average 2.7DegC colder than in 2007 (47% total saving).

Chris Martin fixing insulating lining in the classroom

• The remaining walls (in the toilets and corridors) were insulated.
• Nearly all of the remaining single glazed windows were replaced with argon filled units with a soft Planitherm Ultra N coating.
• The five remaining storage heaters were replaced with radiators running off one air to water ashp.
• A 'warm roof' was superimposed on the entire meeting house roof and was made ready for solar PV panels.
Results: Energy consumption dropped by a further 20% despite the winter months being on average 0.6 degC colder than in 2008 (67% total saving).

• A 11.1 kWp solar array of 60 panels was commissioned on June 11th. It is hoped this will produce as much as 10,000 kWh of electricity annually. Half of the cost of the array came from a government Low Carbon Building Phase 2 grant. Meeting decided to go ahead with the maximum array despite being told at the last minute that accepting the LCB grant would mean we could not be paid any Feed In Tariff for our generation.
• In October the EU ruled that in cases like ours the Feed In Tariff could be paid and we registered with British Gas for our FiT. We hope to earn around £3,000 annually.
Results: We expect to generate at least 5,000 kWh in 2010. This will be 28% of the 2009 usage and will make a total saving from 2004 of 77%.

Solar electricity panels on the roof of the Meeting House

• A full year’s generation of 10,000 kWh should bring our final savings plus generation up to at most 87% of our original 2004 usage.
• The meeting house still has twelve (opening) single glazed windows. In 2011 we hope to make more progress replacing these with A rated double glazed units.

'Cost Benefit Analysis'
The total cost of our energy saving and generation improvements came to £115,094.
double-click on the table to see an enlarged version and click the 'back' arrow to return to the blog

We are saving about £4,454 annually in electricity costs and using about £384 worth of our own generated electricity, a total of £4,838. Without the Feed-In Tariff (FiT) and without any grants our energy saving measures would have had a financial pay-back time of 23 years at current prices.

We moved forward in faith. Our work attracted grants totaling £70,250, most of this in its last phase after we had measured and graphed our energy savings over four years. These alone would have reduced our pay-back time to 14 years.

Over the five years of this project we were counting and graphing our CO2 savings, not our pound savings. Most notably, Meeting agreed, in May 2010, to accept a 50% government grant for solar PV on our roof. This enabled us to install the largest possible solar array, but we learned just before the installation that accepting the grant meant that we would receive no feed in tariff, even for our 50% of the panels. Meeting was, however, clear that our intent was to generate as much electricity as possible, not as much money as possible and agreed to go ahead.

In October 2010 the European Union ruled that groups that had accepted government grants for their PV were, after all, eligible for the Feed-in Tariff. This means an income in future of about £3,150 from our solar generation. It now appears that our own financial outlay will be recouped in five and a half years.

Carbon Dioxide Benefit Analysis
Cotteridge Friends will be saving over 19,000 kg CO2 annually. Government calculations suggest this almost equals the emissions form two people a year (excluding flights). More recently climate change scientists have suggested that 19,000 kg CO2 is closer to the average emissions for one person in the UK once their purchases of goods manufactured abroad and one short flight are included in the tally. It is vital to remember that 19,000 kg CO2 is the greenhouse gas equivalent of one return flight from the UK to Australia. 19,000 kg CO2 is a great saving, but it needs to be the start, not the end, of the Meeting’s savings.

We Friends need now to replicate what we have achieved in the meeting house in our own homes and in our wider lives. We need to slow down and amble through our days, savoring the delights of friends, family, nature. We need to positively enjoy eating less meat and more vegetables. We need to find our self worth in loving actions, not consumerism. The engine of our actions needs to be love of our planet and love of children as yet unborn, not status and wanderlust.

Our earth is already 0.8 degC up on 1850 temperatures and, according to the Royal Society, is set to rise further between 0.2 to 0.4 deg C each decade. We can’t afford to go much above 2 deg C. Beyond that there is a very good chance that we will trigger uncontrollable global warming. Feedback effects, like the release of methane from frozen tundra and cold seas, will probably push temperatures up yet further.

If CO2 emissions peak now, in 2010, then drop 80% by 2050 and 90% by about 2080, we reduce the chances of run away climate chaos. Cotteridge Meeting has shown this is not impossible. We really can talk about climate change and be positive.

For more on how different levels of temperature rise would affect us, see Six Degrees:our future on a hotter planet by Mark Lynas.

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Cotteridge Meeting - grants received with great gratitude from:
Low Carbon Building Fund Phase 2 (since closed): £23,000
Veolia Landfill Trust (in part payment for a 'warm roof'): £15,000
Central England Area Meeting Property Fund
Britain Yearly Meeting Meeting Houses Fund
Sir James Reckitt Charitable Trust
William A Cadbury Charitable Trust
Edward Cadbury Charitable Trust
CB & HH Taylor Trust
JA Gillett Trust
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Thanks to Harriet for this post.
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If you want to post a comment, and are having technical difficulties, you can email your comment to me at Good.Lives@woodbrooke.org.uk  and I can post it for you.

If you are reader from outside the UK, please remember to post your comment in English - I won't post anything if I don't know what it says!

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Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Science, government policy and public opinion

In last week's New Scientist magazine there was an interesting historical article about 'The relativity deniers':
Einstein's general theory of relativity, published in 1915, received an overwhelming public response - not all of it positive. Numerous accounts which appeared during the 1920s claimed to show relativity was wrong, and Einstein received many letters from laypeople who claimed to have found the ultimate refutation of his theory. Many of today's physicists and astronomers . . . continue to receive this kind of mail. On densely written pages - and, increasingly, in rambling emails, blog posts and online comments - self-proclaimed scientists keep trying to foist their astonishingly simple solutions to much-discussed problems upon genuine academics. Yet what flourishes today on the fringes of the internet was much more prominent in the 1920s, in the activities of a movement that included physics professors and even Nobel laureates.
The article goes on to describe the concerted political effort to discredit Einstein's work. All this has fascinating and disturbing echoes of current climate change denial, and concerted attempts to undermine climate science.

But it is broader than just climate science - there is a bigger issue about how scientific findings in many fields are responded to by both government and the public. In one issue of The Guardian last week - at the same time as this New Scientist article - there were three matters discussed that, together, made this problem clear.

First, there was a report about the government initiative to invite food giants such as McDonald's, PepsiCo, Unilever and Kellogg's to be at the heart of re-writing policy on alcohol abuse, obesity, and other diet-related disease. This is surely a kind of madness. The article, by Felicity Lawrence, reported on Diane Abbott (shadow public health minister) calling for an enquiry into this. Abbott is quoted saying:
There is a wealth of literature that shows that junk food and fast food is the worst kind of diet and rather than taking advice from people who peddle it we should be helping people avoid it. This government has already in just a few months sold out the interests of the nation to the interests of big business.
In the 'comment' pages the same day, Professor Philip James (president of the International Association for the Study of Obesity) writes:
By cosying up to the food industry the health secretary is ignoring all scientific thinking on obesity . . . When I was involved in establishing the FSA for Tony Blair in 1997, it became clear that ministers were under intense pressure from the food industry to exclude nutrition and focus solely on food safety. Later that year, when I produced a report for the government on the prevention of childhood obesity, the then minister of public health, Tessa Jowell, told me my proposals were extraordinarily radical because I suggested advertising and marketing might influence children's behaviour . . .
Obesity ballooned in the UK in the mid-80s when the food industry realised that intense marketing, particularly to children, profoundly influences purchases. Senior executives of large European food firms have told me that once they have a reasonable product, they lower the price, make it easily available, and use sophisticated and intense marketing to increase sales . .
David Cameron has said that obesity is everybody's individual responsibility. Lansley's reforms are the embodiment of that view. Thus the government is now flying in the face of all the scientific and public health evidence on what needs to be done, as set out by the chief scientist in 2007. It is a major setback for the health of the nation.
The second issue was discussed by Polly Toynbee, commenting on the government's decision to introduce a well-being index. She writes:
David Cameron did not invent happiness . . . On the contrary, he heads a government in the process of inflicting more pain than for many a long year. So why, next week, would he launch a great new plan to measure the wellbeing of the nation? "It's very brave," says Professor Richard Layard of the LSE, who has campaigned for these indicators for years . . . Cameron is making the announcement partly because he might as well embrace the inevitable: the Office for National Statistics was doing it anyway. Jil Matheson, the entirely independent chief statistician, has been working for a long time on ways to measure the emotional state of the nation . . . every model shows that the most unequal societies are the least happy. The Tea Party strand in British politics has set about an internet rubbishing of this view: though resoundingly refuted, it will never be budged by mere evidence. Even the rich in unequal countries are less happy than the best off in more equal countries . . . Losing your job is one of the greatest causes of misery. Being sacked makes people ill, losing their nerve and the will to work again . . .   Layard's research shows the lasting damage: even those who find jobs again are left for ever less happy, feeling life is more dangerous. The government has put deficit reduction before the damage done to people. As daily distress emails report cuts in services that do most to ease suffering, I find talk of happiness hard to swallow.
And as if this were not enough for one day, George Monbiot's column the same day was about TB in cattle and badger culling:
Tuberculosis in cattle is spreading rapidly: moving east and north from the south-west of England and south Wales . . .  It cost the government £63m last year alone in England, £120m since 2000 in Wales. Contact with badgers is one of the means by which cattle catch the disease. . . The governments of both countries believe they can help arrest TB by killing badgers . . . There is only one rigorous scientific trial of badger culling. This is the work carried out by the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, led by Professor John Bourne. It took nine years and cost us £49m, and it is now being comprehensively ignored. Both administrations claim to be basing their culls on the outcome of this trial. Both are doing anything but. You don't have to read far to discover this. Bourne attached a covering letter to his report, in the vain hope that this would prevent anyone from misrepresenting his findings. Here is what it says: "Badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain. Indeed, some policies under consideration are likely to make matters worse rather than better." The main source of infection, it continued, is transmission not from badgers to cattle, but from cattle to cattle. "The rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone." . . . The Westminster government has chosen the worst of all possible options: licensing farmers to kill badgers. This, Professor Bourne's report points out, "would entail a substantial risk of increasing the incidence of cattle TB and spreading the disease".

Monbiot goes on to blame the NFU (National Farmers Union), and the government's willingness to bow to their lobbying, as the reason for this non-scientific behaviour. He does so in rather intemperate language that the NFU, unsurprisingly, takes exception to.

But the overwhelming picture, from all these articles taken together, is of political unwillingness to take science seriously and to base policies on rational findings. Public opinion is no better, being easily swayed by emotive appeals rather than rational argument. I started off as a scientist, and this bothers me greatly. How is government ever going to act wisely in relation to climate change - with its immense implications for every aspect of our lives - if it can't even act with common-sense in relation to well-attested scientific results in these much smaller and limited fields?

However, we must not give up. Dogged persistence is required of us in these difficult times.
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Sunday, 14 November 2010

A pacifist on Remembrance Sunday

Today is Remembrance Sunday, and I found myself watching on TV the service and march-past at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. It isn't something I normally do, so I responded in the moment to the events, without a sense of familiarity or expectation of what would come next (other than that provided by the BBC commentator).

As the parade continued, with organisation after organisation marching past, I had an overwhelming sense of the sheer scale of what was being represented there. All the serving military units; the young wounded and veterans of those units; the generations of those who died in military service; the welfare organisations that support injured fighters and their families; the widows and the children, and the organisations that support them; the political and religious figures - politicians who take the decisions to send people into war, and the religious bodies that send chaplains and others to minister to those serving; organisations that send entertainers out to the troops wherever they are . . . and so on. And included are some who were part of the war effort in other ways, such as the 'Bevin Boys', conscripted to work in the coal mines so as to keep the country going while others were fighting - only in recent years allowed to join the parade.

All this vast, complex, organised, thoughtful, intelligent, co-operative use of human and financial resources - all dedicated, in one way or another, to the prosecution of war.

And I recalled something I heard said, in passing, on the radio on Thursday, which was Remembrance Day itself: 'they don't do it for their country, they do it for their mates'. This is expressed often, in many different ways, for example:
Soldiers don't fight for their ideals, they don't fight for their country, they fight for their mates. The purpose of a lot of the training is, and has always been, to bond the unit into a family. You eat together, sleep together, party together and go through the same shit together. Your good days are their good days, your successes are theirs, your failures are shared, you overcome challenges together. The purpose of all this is so when they fly the group out and put them together in a warzone they'll kill to protect their friends, they'll fight to protect their friends and when it matters they just won't stop. I've always thought it's kind of ironic when two nations who both use this form of training fight. You get two groups of friends and tell each of them that the other wants to shoot their best mate.
(This particular version was posted on an online forum).

This kind of powerful bonding together for common purpose has been noticed in other arenas, and ways have been sought to replicate it. When Kurt Hahn founded Outward Bound, during World War 2, its original its purpose was to train young boys, who were going to serve in the Royal Navy, how to withstand the rigours they would encounter, so dramatically different from anything their lives had so far prepared them for.

After the war, Hahn sought to reproduce those positive elements, as he saw it, of military training and experience, for boys (inintially it was only boys) - part of a remedy, he felt, for a country suffering from a post-war 'lack of moral fibre'. Girls were first admitted to courses in 1951. The Outward Bound Trust continues to this day to offer such programmes, still for young people, but also including adult courses and corporate development training.

Hahn founded a whole range of organisations with similar aims, addressed to specific groups of people. In the UK he is probably best known in relation to Gordonstoun School, because a young Prince Charles was sent there for his schooling (and, reportedly, hated it!). Less well-known, perhaps, is Atlantic College and the subsequent network United World Colleges. Atlantic College was the first, and still offers international residential education for pupils aged 16+, leading to the International Baccalaureate. Included as a vital part of their curriculum are community service, and the kinds of outdoor challenges associated with the Outward Bound idea. Part of Hahn's philosophy was that young people develop when given real responsibility - and at Atlantic College, the pupils are trained to staff the lifeboat, the mountain rescue serviceand the cliff/sea rescue service. This is real responsibility and real potential danger - they are not just 'crew' - they also take command: each night, I was told, it is one of the pupils who goes to bed with the lifeboat key round his or her neck, in case of a call-out.

These are all examples of deliberately harnessing the elements of training, group bonding, service to others, real challenge, and real responsibility. But other circumstances create analogous conditions and produce similar outcomes in perhaps startlingly different situations. Think, for instance of the women who lived for years at the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp. Many, many women visited, and camped there for a few nights, or perhaps a few weeks. But there was a core who lived there permanently.

The presence of women living outside an operational nuclear base 24 hours a day, brought a new perspective to the peace movement - giving it leadership and a continuous focus. The commitment to non-violence and non-alignment gave the protest an authority that was difficult to dismiss – journalists from all over the world made their way to the camp to report on it. Living conditions were primitive - living outside in all kinds of weather, especially in the winter and rainy seasons, was testing. Without electricity, telephone, running water etc, and suffering frequent evictions and vigilante attacks, life was difficult. In spite of the conditions, women from many parts of the UK and abroad, spent time at the camp to be part of the resistance to nuclear weapons. It was a case of giving up comfort for commitment. The protest was committed to disrupting the exercises of the USAF. Nuclear convoys leaving the base to practice nuclear war, were blockaded, tracked to their practice area and disrupted. Taking non-violent direct action meant that women were arrested, taken to court and sent to prison.

Another example would be elements of the roads protest movement. The first of these that gained real public notice was the Newbury Bypass protest. Protestors camped at the site, dug tunnels and lived in them, climbed trees, made tree houses to live in, and harnessed themselves to them. As with the Greenham women, they suffered evictions, arrest and  imprisonment. The same kinds of solidarity and commitment were created by the combination of action, hardship, and group bonding for common purpose.

In many parts of the world there have been group actions to protect trees - examples include SAL, Chipko, and many smaller campaigns as loggers or other commercial interests threaten trees and hence whole ecosystems and people's livelihoods.

All of these examples share one thing - alongside the challenge or the danger, the group bonding in the face of hardship, the commitment to a cause . . . there is one further ingredient: an 'enemy'. In all these examples there was a commitment to nonviolence - but there was an enemy, an opposing force, a clear and identifiable organisation to fight against.

As we contemplate the wider environmental challenges faced by the whole of humanity, we are also faced with a human, social and psychological challenge. Can we generate this passion, solidarity and commitment to radical action out of positive motivation, rather than out of opposition to an enemy? How wide a net can we draw, to bring in many, many people to act to save the ecosystems that support us, and all of life? Can we find ways to address the challenges of peak oil and climate change so that we also start to forge new kinds of social action, working together 'for something' rather than 'against something' . . . but with equal passion, commitment and energy?

Our future may depend on it.
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If you want to post a comment, and are having technical difficulties, you can email your comment to me at Good.Lives@woodbrooke.org.uk and I can post it for you.

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Sunday, 7 November 2010

The 100th object

You may have been following the BBC Radio 4 series 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'. If you haven't, you missed a treat - but it's all still available. Written and narrated by Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, the series brings together the resources of the museum, the scholarship and sensibility of its director, and the media presence - on air and online - of the BBC. The 100 quarter-hour broadcasts tell the history of humanity - our common history and cultural development - through 100 objects made and used by humans from different eras and different parts of the world. From the earliest Stone Age to the twenty first century, and from all over the globe, we are given a sound-picture of one view of the history of our species.

All the programmes are archived. You can view photographs of each object (some too fragile to be on open display at the museum); you can download the podcasts of the whole series, or any individual programme; and on each programme's page you can find additional comment from relevant specialists, and read the transcript of the programme.

The book of the series is also now available - published at the end of last month.

At the beginning of the series, the 100th object had not been chosen - what could represent our 'global now' to round off this series? Neil MacGregor chose a solar-powered lamp and charger, made in Shenzhen, Guangdong, China, in 2010. There's a much better picture on the website! (I took this with my phone when I visited the museum last week, to look at some of the objects.)

Below is the transcript of the final programme - and it will become clear why I've put it on a blog that's about sustainability.

This series has been, for me, an exhilarating journey through two million years of human endeavour, passion and ingenuity. We began in East Africa with a chopping tool - a roughly shaped stone that allowed us to take control of our environment and to change both the way we live and the way we think. And I want to finish with another tool, or more precisely with a bit of technology that's also transforming the way we can live and think - in East Africa where our story began, but also in South Asia and in many other parts of the world. It's a portable solar energy panel that powers a lamp. In fact it's sunshine, captured, harvested and stored, to be taken out and used whenever and wherever we need it.

"Now I can do my lessons till midnight because of solar light. Previously I have [had] to spend lots of time in the ration shop to collect kerosene oil for use [in] lamps at night for my studies. Now I can save my time and money too." (Aloka Sarder)

"Solar energy is at the heart of the new industrial revolution, the low-carbon industrial revolution which is just beginning. It's a revolution which will be enormously important in the history of mankind." (Nick Stern)

Our hundredth object gives to people all over the world - who have until now been off-grid, that is, without access to any mains electricity supply - a quite new level of control over their environment. Solar power, thanks to low-cost lighting, and power kits like the one I've chosen, is changing lives in many parts of the world. And it may yet - who knows? - play a key role in solving the world's energy problems.

I'm standing on the roof of BBC Broadcasting House, and I've got the solar panel and lamp with me - the latest addition to the collection of the British Museum. The lamp is made of plastic, it's got a handle, and it's about the size of a large coffee mug. The solar panel looks like a small silver photograph frame. When this solar panel is exposed to eight hours of bright sun - and today we're lucky, even in London the sun is bright - then the lamp can provide up to one hundred hours of even, white light. At its strongest it can illuminate an entire room - enough to allow a family with no electricity to live in a quite new way - and, once paid for, it depends only on sun.

Photovoltaic panels contain rows of solar cells made from silicon, wired together and then encased in plastic and glass. When exposed to sunlight, the cells generate electricity, which can charge and re-charge a battery. It's largely made of durable plastic, its rechargeable batteries are a recent invention, and its photovoltaic cell depends on the silicon-chip technology which lies behind personal computers and mobile phones. And all this supra-national new technology can now be harnessed, thanks to the energy source that's been with us since the world began. It comes from 93 million miles away . . . it's the sun. Here's Professor Nick Stern of the London School of Economics, known for his work on climate change:

"One of the great advantages of solar energy is that as far as we humans are concerned, it's almost limitless. Why? Because in one hour we get as much energy from the sun on the earth as we use right across the planet in one year. So for us it's virtually unlimited. And further, the cost of accessing that limitless supply of energy is really crashing down. Just in the last couple of years the cost of a solar panel has fallen by about a half."

Although silicon is cheap and sunshine is free, solar panels big enough to generate the gargantuan amounts of electricity that rich countries devour are still prohibitively expensive. The poor are more modest in their demands and so, paradoxically, this technology which is costly for the rich is cheap for the poor. Many of the world's poorest people live in the sunniest latitudes, which is why this new source of modest amounts of energy works so well in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and tropical America. There, in a poor household, a small number of volts can make a very big difference.

If you live in the tropics without electricity, your day ends early. Light at night is supplied by candles or by kerosene lamps. Candles are dim and don't last. Kerosene is expensive and gives off toxic fumes. Kerosene lanterns and cooking stoves cause an estimated two million deaths every year, most of them women, because the fumes are especially dangerous in enclosed spaces where most cooking is done, affecting lungs, heart and eyes. Then there is the fire risk. Homes made of wood or other natural materials are highly inflammable, at constant risk from candle flames and kerosene spills.

Photovoltaic solar panels change almost every aspect of this rural domestic existence. Lighting on tap at home means that children, and adults, can study at night, improving their education and therefore their futures. Homes become cleaner and safer, and they become cheaper. Micro-credit schemes allow payments for a solar lamp like this to be spread, so although the initial cost is high, the debt can be paid off quite quickly out of the considerable savings on kerosene - and once the debt is paid, your light is free. Here is Aloka Sarder, mother and adult student from Dayapur village in rural West Bengal, who is using one of the simple lamp kits in her home:

"For last one year I am using the solar lights. It's very useful . . . [more] than the kerosene lamps. Now I can work at night, my children can do their lessons at night. And you know we are living in the storm-prone area. If there is storm, then kerosene lamps . . . not work. In that way solar light works as electric lights for us, and I am happy."

Larger panels can provide power for cookers, fridges, televisions, computers and water pumps, so that many of the defining amenities of towns can now be available to villages. But there's more. Both towns and villages can be set free by solar power, even when there is a mains electricity supply. Here's Nick Stern again:

"One of the great things about solar power is freedom from the grid. In many parts of the world, particularly the developing world and particularly South Asia and Africa, it is extremely unreliable. Also the energy is unreliable from the point of view of interventions by corrupt people. It's all too easy to flick a switch and turn off your energy supply, and then demand payment to put it back on. With solar power you can organise it yourself, you are in control. So it's really empowering, relative to relying on the grid system."

So it's not surprising that in Africa and Asia, on or off grid, the demand for solar panels is enormous - they give independence. Here is Bonifes Nyamo, a teacher from a girls' school in Kibera, Kenya - one of the densest urban areas in Africa - where they have been taught how to make solar panels and lamps that they then sell or hire out. It's helping to bring in extra pupils at the school, as well as giving light to the community:

"We were taught how just to make it light. But the students discovered that they can also connect wires, so that it can also charge a mobile phone, an mp3, mp4, and maybe the camera. This panel works in two ways. One, it provides light, that is a torch - it can be used as a torch. And at the same time - during daytime when we don't need light - it can be used to charge mobile phones, and any other rechargeable thing that falls below five volts."

On our lamp there is a charging socket, and beside it is a universally recognised symbol - a mobile phone. Our solar panel could give the 1.6 billion people without access to an electrical grid the power they need to join the global mobile conversation. Putting communities in touch, giving access to information about jobs and markets, and providing the basis for informal and highly effective banking networks, so that local businesses can start up on a shoe-string. A recent study of mobile phone use among the rural poor, commissioned by the World Bank, reported that labourers, farmers, rickshaw drivers, fishermen and shopkeepers - all said that their income gets a real boost when they have access to a mobile phone. As Nick Stern confirms, women especially benefit:

"They can have their own solar panel, and charge people to use it, either for a lamp or a mobile phone. They can do it mostly from their own house. They will need to borrow a bit to buy it, but on the whole micro-finance to women is more reliable. Women seem to pay their bills, pay their credit, a bit more reliably than men. So it has that sense of opportunity and empowerment for women."

This liberating, low-cost, green, clean technology is not only transforming lives in Africa and Asia. It may ultimately help to save the planet, reducing our current dependence on fossil fuels and their contribution to climate change. It's a hope that was expressed years ago by an unexpected prophet of renewable energy: Thomas Edison, the inventor of the electric light bulb. In 1931 Edison observed to his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone:

"I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that."

The power of the sun seems a good place to end this global history, because solar energy is a dream of the future that echoes the oldest and most universal of human myths, that of the life-giving sun. You could see our solar-powered lamp as an echo of this myth - the heroic fire-stealing Prometheus reduced to the humble role of home help. Just as we bottle summer fruits so that the warmth and nourishment of summer can see us through winter, everybody has dreamed of harvesting the sun to have its light and power available at will. In the very first programme of this history, the Egyptian priest Hornedjitef took with him a scarab, magical symbol of the regenerative sun, to lighten the darkness of the afterlife. I think if he was setting out on that journey now, he would definitely take a solar-powered lamp as back-up.

This hundredth object brings me to the end of this particular history of the world. For me, the series has demonstrated the power of things to connect us to other lives across time and place, and to ensure that all humanity can have a voice in our common story. Above all, I hope it has shown that the notion of the human family is not an empty metaphor, however dysfunctional that family usually is - we all have the same needs and preoccupations, the same fears and hopes. Humanity is one.

It's good to be able to end this series on a note of hope. We began with the noise of a dying star. I want to finish with another cosmic noise from millions of miles away. It's the music created by vibrations in the sun's atmosphere . . . it's the noise of a new day.
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