NaNoWriMo first draft – Waste not

There are schemes all over town to promote self sufficiency. Manchester’s ecological sphere of influence is shrinking inwards. It proudly proclaims itself to be approaching carbon neutrality and trumpets the aim of becoming a net exporter of energy.

In the city centre the tallest buildings have all been eco-tarted in some way. Several years ago the Cooperative Insurance Services tower was partially clad in solar cells. The company also mounted wind turbines atop an office block, but it never seemed to get enough airflow and they were idle more often than not. They’ve obviously mapped the wind patterns around town since then because there are now several buildings with windmill blades spinning madly on their roofs. They generate a low hum that’s strangely relaxing. They did try to put a turbine on top of the Beetham Tower, the city’s tallest building, but they built it too big and the skyscraper wasn’t made for the strain. So they didn’t even mount the windmill on the tower and erected it in Heaton Park instead.

Solar is popular on lots of the buildings. Production of photovoltaics was interrupted for several years as it became hard to transport the raw materials around the world, but solar thermal has flourished. It’s not so hard to produce evacuated glass tubes, so a lot of buildings have arrays of them fitted on any south facing surface. Mostly they heat enough water during the day for evening showers or to keep the house warm during the night, but I hear that more than one workshop inventor is working on a Stirling energy to generate electricity using the heat.

Within a few streets, in any direction, of my hotel there are terraced streets running East to West. That acreage of south facing roofing has been put to good use. As well as providing a community heat source the system that’s been set up provides the heat to distill and clean the water supply.

Trying to scale back on infrastructure to better cope with circumstances it was decided that the cleaning of tap water wasn’t a priority. It was a waste of energy to have every drop pure enough to drink when most of it was used for other purposes. This meant boiling all your drinking water or finding other ways to purify it. Most houses now have a brown water tank- from showers, washing up etc. to be used in the toilet or on the garden- and a clear water one. The clear water tank is usually fed by evaporation distillation of tap water using waste heat from the house and solar heating.

I cycle around randomly up and down streets, as much to get used to the fixed wheel as to explore. As long as the back wheel is turning the pedals are turning. If my legs stop going around they’ll either lock the back wheel or get kicked off. If I lean forward it takes some of the weight off the rear wheel, making locking it up easier. Then I can lean back and put more force into the braking. It’s an interesting experience. I can see why no-one wanted to take this strange bike on.

At the end of one of the streets there is a two storey red brick building. An old factory, probably. I do a circuit and find the front door. It’s double wide and has huge stalks of corn painted on it. Above the doors a sign in exuberant graffiti writing pronounces ‘Ethanol!’. Set inside the bigger doors is a smaller one for individual entry. It’s cracked open and I can see movement through it. Despite years of experience and that old saying about the cat I can’t fight my curiosity and pop my head through the door.

It smells a bit like a brewery, a bit like the floor of a forest. There are big vats, with lots of plumbing, that go up through the space that would have been the first floor . The roof isn’t a roof. It seems to be a framework with tables on it.

“Here for a few gallons?” a woman in overalls asks me. “We won’t have a new batch for a few days.”

“This is a brewery?”

“And distillery. But don’t go drinking any of our shit. You’ll go blind.”

Now it all makes sense. They make ethanol biofuel. The big vats brew “beer” from plant waste- I can see a pile of straw and paper in one corner. I don’t see any sort of pressure cooker, so I guess they’re breaking it down with enzymes. “Are those things on the roof solar stills?”

“Yes they are.”

The solar stills distill the brew, strengthening it. No doubt, as there are several of them, they are set up in series, each one strengthening the product of the previous one. At the end of the process they should have alcofuel concentrated enough to run a car on.

“Almost a shame I don’t have a car to run on it.”

“Oh, you should try next door. They convert cars to run on this stuff.”

“Maybe when I’m rich enough. Sorry for popping in like that, I’m just nosey.”

“No problem.”

Next door, as promised, there’s a workshop where they convert cars to run on ethanol. I never did learn what it takes to do that. There are five cars, all small ones, being worked on and a couple of motors mounted on frames and connected up to generators or pumps.

I carry on my learning reconnaisance, round and round the streets, until it starts to rain. Then I sprint back to the hotel as fast as I can. On the way I pass communal composters and a pick up from the ethanol shop collecting paper and other cellulose waste. There’s a workshop making new computers from old. Lots of stuff is being traded second hand and refurbished. Capitalism is alive and well, just in a very different way to how it used to be.