Thursday, December 22, 2011

One Warm Room

The high cost of heating oil this year has many of the welfare agencies worrying about their clients who may be unable to afford to heat their homes this winter. These caseworkers have clients who may be forced to choose between heat and food and medications, expenditures that many of us take for granted.
Several years ago the British government was very worried that there might be insufficient supplies of natural gas for home heating across the UK. For many years the UK was an energy exporter, supplying oil and gas from their North Sea fields to other European customers through the extensive network of pipelines servicing the oil fields. After the early years of the 21st century Britain became an importer of energy, as their own fields depleted and no new ones could be developed. By 2009 there was a very real concern that the natural gas supplies would be inadequate to cover winter demand for space heating and the not-insignificant demand for electricity generation. The problem was that the UK was very near the end of a natural gas pipeline that ran from Eastern Russia all the way through Europe to Ireland. All of the countries closer to the source could take up gas for their own needs and potentially leave none for Britain. In addition, there was a major squabble between Russia and Ukraine over who should pay to fill the line with gas.
In the former Soviet Union much of the natural gas was produced by Russia but most of the storage and distribution was handled by facilities in Ukraine. While they were part of the Soviet Union disagreements were handled internally but once they were all sovereign countries the disputes became international. The course of events seems to be that poor Ukraine took gas from the pipelines that crossed their territory and paid for it at a lower than market rate, or took it as rent or transit costs. Russia stopped delivering gas through the pipelines and Ukraine took the gas stranded in the pipeline until the pipeline was no longer pressurised. Customers farther along the pipeline (which was most of Europe) had no natural gas supplies. There was an impasse as Ukraine said that Russia should re-pressurise the pipeline at its expense and Russia said that Ukraine should pay for the cost of the gas to refill the line. And the winter got colder.
The British government began to draw up a One Warm Room policy, hoping to be able to provide each home with enough energy to keep one room warm (typically the kitchen) and thereby avoid illness and deaths caused by people living in unheated accommodation. References to this policy seem to have disappeared and so I can’t reproduce it here.
I am just old enough to remember when many homes and apartments in the older sections of Dartmouth used an oil stove as a cooking and heating appliance. This was a sturdy stove with a pot-burner in the firebox, and a gravity-fed carburetor that trickled oil into the pot where it burned off and provided the heat. There was a Coleman stove version of this unit that was a space heater and needed no electricity, while the cookstove version needed a small fan to make the oil burn hotter and move the exhaust gases around the oven. The oil was supplied by an enamel tank that held about 2 gallons. It could be carried to the store and filled with stove oil, and then it was placed upside down in a stand behind the stove and the oil trickled out of the tank and into the stand, and from there down a copper pipe into the stove.
There were two key elements to this system. Number one was that it was a very low-tech and quite safe way to run a cook stove and space heater, and the other was that one did not need a big tank of oil and a truck to deliver it 1,000 litres at a time. One could slip down to the corner store and buy a few gallons at a time.
The one-warm-room system in the old house that stood where my new house now stands was a little bit different. There was a wood-fired cook stove in the kitchen, and it heated as much of the house at it could: most of the house in early and late winter, and just the kitchen itself in the depth of winter. The most important part of that old system is that there was no plumbing in the walls to freeze and crack.
So what will we do in Northern Nova Scotia when fuel oil supplies are sporadic? It wouldn’t take much for this to happen. Bad weather, a fire at the refinery in Dartmouth (which was out because of a lightning strike last summer), an insurrection in Saudi Arabia that takes much of the oil supply offline for a while, or an Israeli attack on Iran which would in turn close the Straits of Hormuz, through which much of the Saudi’s oil moves. Or just a plain old economic depression which makes fuel unaffordable for many.
If energy for space heating becomes unavailable, or rationed, or unaffordable, or sporadic, then many homes will be damaged beyond easy repair. A house in Cumberland County needs only to be without heat for several days in February to have the pipes in the walls freeze and burst. Toilets will freeze and break and must be replaced. The water pump in a washing machine may freeze and burst if not drained beforehand.
Imagine the chaos if an apartment building were to freeze up. It would become an instant public health hazard as the toilets would cease to work but people would still need to excrete. Off the balcony, perhaps?
How would your home fare?

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