Eco activist's perfect holiday - halfway up a Swiss mountain

Camden Eco Champion and regular contributor to the Ham&High, Cllr Alexis Rowell, takes an eco holiday in the Swiss Alps as he continues his quest to prove that we can all live low carbon lives without reducing our quality of life It was billed as the e

Camden Eco Champion and regular contributor to the Ham&High, Cllr Alexis Rowell, takes an eco holiday in the Swiss Alps as he continues his quest to prove that we can all live low carbon lives without reducing our quality of life

It was billed as the eco activist's perfect holiday. Perched halfway up a Swiss mountain, Whitepod is a camp of canvas igloos each with its own wood burning stove inside. The wood is waste from the surrounding forest.

Food - grown in the valley below - is served in a nearby chalet, the "motherpod". This is kept warm by a ground source pump, an underground set of coiled pipes which absorb the earth's heat. The amazing thing about this device is that you get three times as much energy from it as you need to run the pumps.

The water used at Whitepod comes from its own well. There are plans to put solar panels on the roof so for the moment the electricity comes from the Swiss national grid, but more than half of that is generated from hydro or comes from an energy-from-waste facility in the valley which burns waste and creates electricity.


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Not that there's much waste at Whitepod since more than 80 per cent of it is recycled.

Our pod was delightfully warm when we arrived on the first evening and so we went to bed without putting logs in the wood burner. Big mistake. We woke up at 5am with the temperature below zero. Half-asleep and freezing cold I was obliged to make a fire from first principles. A copy of the Economist has never been better used as a fire lighter.

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One of my constituents has since told me I should have dug a hole in the bottom of the tent for the cold air to fall into. If only I'd known.

After a huge breakfast in the motherpod (to compensate for energy loss through shivering) we turned our attention to skiing. Ever since I worked in a ski resort as a teenager I have always loved skiing, but when I went eco I forced myself to re-evaluate what I liked about the sport.

Mountains, beautiful views, fresh air, exercise, speeding down hills, sun, powder snow - yes. Queues, energy-intensive ski lifts, ski runs full of people, landscapes disfigured in the summer months by skiing infrastructure - no.

So nowadays I walk up mountains on "seal skins" which are attached to the bottom of skis and which allow you to slide forwards but not back. At the top you strip off the skins and ski down normally, preferably avoiding crowded runs.

Whitepod has gone a long way towards taking the carbon out of skiing, albeit at a high price, but the following week we managed to go several steps further. We visited Switzerland's first zero carbon ski chalet, which was built by a British engineer, Victoria Leaney. She quit the UK two years ago, with three young kids and a husband in tow, to construct low energy buildings in the Swiss Alps.

The key to the success of their eco chalet is insulation. The windows are triple glazed and the walls, roof and floor are made of wood (22cm) and wool (8cm). So energy wastage is minimised. The next thing is the position of the house. The roof is south-facing to maximise solar power, but the house is also tall and thin so the sun reaches right through in the winter and hardly penetrates at all in the summer.

The solar panels on the roof heat water and create electricity. In fact they produce more power than the family needs so the surplus is exported to the national grid. A series of heat exchangers extract stale air from the chalet, but use the heat in the old air to warm up the incoming fresh air.

In winter the main room can be heated by a highly efficient wood burner. And I have to say that watching the flames consume a log was more interesting than Swiss TV.

The Swiss have a lot of mountains and therefore generate 58 per cent of their electricity from hydro. But that predates concern about global warming. Later this year they are going to introduce a feed-in tariff for electricity supply. That will mean that householders who supply electricity to the grid will be paid more per kilowatt than they pay when they take power from the grid. This simple change has kick-started the micro renewables industry across Europe, which is why the Liberal Democrats have called for a similar policy in the UK.

So our friends in the eco chalet are about to start making money from supplying electricity to the Swiss national grid. Back in the train to London watching the snow-capped mountains recede into the distance I reflected on this and other changes I had seen during this trip.

Herve has promised to make his house more energy efficient based on the advice of our eco chalet engineer. Nine-month-old Julia is about to get reusable nappies. Julia's mother is now composting the household's food waste and has switched the household electricity contract to 100 per cent renewable energy.

Seventy-year-old Maurice is going to look into putting solar panels on his roof. Jeremy has promised to get his family to recycle after I emptied their bin and showed them that 80 per cent of it could be recycled.

Yes, I know, it's a bit drastic to go through someone's bin, but these are drastic times. To borrow the words of Martin Luther King: "We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late."

For more information go to www.whitepod.com.

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