Category: energy

how I quit smoking energy data

This piece about UX research on smart meters could be retitled “How I Quit Smoking The Data”, to say nothing of this one.

I really dislike a lot of the funky energy/M2M/Internet of Things concepts because they basically shame you for boiling the kettle, and either work because you do daft middle class lifestyle bollocks to work around them if you can, or don’t because you just stop caring and let the battery run down if you can’t. Dan Lockton is a clever guy and he tries hard, but when the kids are yelling, do you honestly want an air raid siren telling you the washing machine is running?

My parents have recently got a smart meter, which doesn’t actually pick up on the power generated by their solar panels, but does allow them to feel superior about hyper-optimising the thing. Until someone advised them to turn off the “economy” setting on their boiler, they were collecting warm water that they ran off the tap to use in the cistern. Impressive, until you realise that you pretty much have to be both completely un-worried about your heating bills and also retired for this to be possible. And it may have saved a whole pound.

There’s also a deep link between these projects and the long history of tiresome well-off people giving the poor lectures about their cooking and such, so well mocked by Orwell. These days, though, Lady Bountiful has outsourced herself to a Chinese ODM’s $20 Android module and a sliver of O2 UK data service, and doesn’t need to show up at the community centre with the grey tea any more.

Controls help, of course, but mostly when you go from “no control” to “modern”. After all, over Christmas, we got a message from Npower announcing that they’re actually cutting our energy bill after the new boiler and the controls were installed. This is literally the first time this has ever happened to me. Technology is the solution, of course, it just matters a great deal what technology.

The lesson here is both that insulation and keeping up to the planning code really will help your energy problem, rather than just provide a better class of blame, and rockwool doesn’t talk.

Minor supplementary point

I saw someone like “Guy Wankey” from Policy Exchange on the telly today about solar power. He was very keen to say that it doesn’t make up very much of the grid today. This is apparently a reason not to use it tomorrow, in much the same way as the tiny numbers of computers in use in 1946 were a great reason to ignore information technology. Hilariously, given time, he would certainly have argued that the inexorable march of technical progress was a great reason to do nothing about the climate.

He also said that “cost reductions had been promised” in solar.

screen shot 2014-04-10 at 9.56.09 am

Some promise! (from here.)

Isn’t the point of a thinktank that it ought to be glued to things like the gap between solar and gas power? But of course it’s not one; it’s a wanktank just trying, like the rest of the political class, to make it not even to the end of the news cycle but to the end of the sentence.

A slight return to Gambetta vs. Npower

Here’s Tory MP Greg Barker just giving up, giving up and passing out the talking points from his financial backers directly, without any further intervention on his part.

He may yet delete it, so:

Anyway, this reminded me of a blog post! Back in April, I blogged about applying great thinkers on strategy to dealing with Npower’s call centre. I can report that the revised bill came down to £48.

More to the point, there’s going to be a lot of whining and shroudwaving. I ask just this. The main thing people do all day at Npower, or whatever, is to put you off challenging the sudden £126/mo bills. That’s what the call centre is for. Is this a worthy occupation for perfectly ordinary people? I think not. Shouldn’t we be better than that?

Also, however crucial the Rough Gas Field storage facility may be, are people who spend their days thinking of new ways to stop your granny who still thinks it’s British Gas from changing provider really the best ones to be in charge of it?

Shouty letter-writing egghead wins

RealClimate reviews a 1981 attempt to forecast the climate impact of CO2 emissions, and finds that it’s basically pretty good (see also The Register eating their words slowly). Which is what you’d expect – the physical processes involved aren’t that complicated at that sort of low-earth orbit viewpoint, and the only things that could really go wrong would be some sort of huge data collection problem or else a really big volcano.

That was James Hansen’s work, and this week he got an Easter egg! Rather, the US Environmental Protection Agency issued a draft regulation that basically means you can’t build a new coal-fired power station. This may be the best news anyone’s had for some time.

Failure of a lobby

Sherwood Rowland, one of the scientists responsible for discovering that CFCs were destroying the ozone layer and fixing the problem, has died. Realclimate has a good write-up, as does Eli Rabett, who makes the excellent point that we needed to invent quite a bit of the chemistry involved before we could discover there was a problem. Perhaps more telling is this NASA web page, which describes the output from the Goddard Space Flight Centre’s Chemistry-Climate Model given inputs corresponding to a world that kept using the stuff. It’s either utterly terrifying, or enormously inspiring, depending on how you look at it. Rowland, Paul Crutzen, the British Antarctic Survey people who did the fieldwork…they essentially saved the world.

But what really interests me was how they got the Vienna and Montreal protocols passed. I had the vague impression that something had changed since 1989, that the ex-tobacco industry unscience industry was only cranked up later to bash the climatologists. In fact, I’m wrong. A comment at Realclimate points out that they were indeed targeted by the usual suspects. Rowland was accused of being a KGB agent trying to destroy capitalism.

Jeff Masters of Wunderground has a really handy rundown of the pushback campaign against the ozone scientists, who were subjected to direct smears as above, plus a barrage of general-purposes PR, psuedo-scientific doubt-mongering, all with the assistance of Hill & Knowlton, Tom DeLay (for it is he) and (interestingly) some of the same characters who turn up both in Big Baccy and later on in the climate wars.

But here’s the interesting question, though. In the case of CFCs, it didn’t work. Thatcher’s late swing towards environmental issues is fairly well known, and prime ministers are certain of ratifying treaties they sign. Something must have induced Reagan to sign and Congress to ratify, though. Did the CFC makers just not give it one more heave, a few more millions?

the 1980s considered as a battle in the air war over Germany

Thinking about my last post brought one of the ideas in this one to mind, especially given today’s front page. That is, was the miners’ strike a strategic bombing campaign?

You what? But consider the strategy the NUM adopted. The basic idea was to concentrate on the supply of coal to the steel industry – hence the battle of Orgreave. The point of this was to force British Steel, as it then was, to idle production. That would, they hoped, cause the steel managers and the downstream industries that consumed steel to put pressure on the government to settle. It might even bring out the steelworkers on strike.

The other option was to concentrate on the other big coal consumer, the electricity industry. Power cuts would hit the economy generally, and would hit consumers directly, unlike cuts in supply to the steelworks.

An important difference between the two was that much of the steel industry’s coal was delivered as coke, whereas the power stations received coal directly from the mines. (Other differences included the fact that the power sector had more options and that power cuts might have unfavourable political consequences because they affected the public directly.) This created a number of critical network nodes between the coal and steel industries. The NUM hoped to target these and therefore send the crisis cascading through the downstream industries until the adversary cracked and gave in or the population rioted and got rid of them.

This really is very close to the whole package of airpower theory, or for that matter John Robb’s global guerrillas concept. As readers will be aware, I’m sceptical of both. Anyway, why didn’t it work?

Arguably, the big problem with this as a strategy was that the government didn’t actually care about what happened to the downstream industries. For the government, even the maximum degree of trouble the miners could inflict on the steelmaking and metalworking economy was a price they were willing to pay.

A question to the reader: What is it that the Tories value most?

MGIs for cleaner skies, and Power Tool of the Week

Swinging off a discussion at Jamie Kenny’s of climate deniers, I wonder what Jamie thinks about Steve Levine’s thesis here that China’s emerging culture of mass protest, the famous Mass-Group Incidents or MGIs, may have major and positive consequences for Chinese energy policy and therefore for the world.

It’s surely time we started calling the MGIs a movement; they are big, they are angry, they are common and increasingly so. Also, they seem to be getting more simultaneous as well as more frequent. The range of issues involved is enormous, from pay to police violence via public corruption and land appropriation. And they’re effective – the Chinese Communist Party, although it has more than enough brute force to crush them, often seems to semi-tolerate mass protests by trimming policy or sacking discredited officials. I’ve suggested before that the top level of the Party may actually see them as a useful force in disciplining the industrial bosses and territorial proconsuls who rule below it. The emperor may be far and the mountains may be high, but that’s the last thing you want when an enraged mob is trying to burn down the Public Security Bureau offices.

Beyond that, it’s conventional to say that the Party wants stability above all and that the organising principle of Chinese politics is Hobbesian fear of chaos. JK would probably point out that they’re damn right – if you had China’s history, you’d be obsessed by chaos because there’s been so much of it and it was so fucking chaotic. Anyway, Jamie is the blogosphere’s MGI expert and therefore I’d like his opinion.

Levine’s argument is that forecasts of China’s economic and energy future tend to arrive at an enormous and prolonged boom in coal-fired generation. They do this by projecting current rates of growth into the future. This scares the shit out of everyone with any sense, as it’s this huge, epochal belch of CO2 (and a lot of other stuff besides) that will eventually fuck us all up. Of course, if the CAGRs for coal consumption were wrong quite a few assumptions would need to be reviewed.

Levine argues that it’s the other stuff you get with coal, especially the low grade brown coal China uses a lot of, that will intervene. Basically, he reckons, air pollution, power-plant development, and mining will become a major and rising source of serious MGIs and will result in the Party restraining the coal industry before the mob does it for them. L

Levine points out that Chinese interests were quite restrained during last year’s rush of coal-related mergers and acquisitions – which is interesting when you think that if the Party wanted them to, they could bid almost without limit thanks to SAFE’s enormous foreign exchange reserves.

Further, and I seem to remember James Hansen making this point, there are real constraints on how much coal the Chinese economy can get through, in that moving that much coal from mines and ports to power stations will fairly soon use up most of the State Railways’ freight capacity. As most of this coal is going to drive the machine tools in all those export processing factories…well, either the bulk haul trainload of coal moves or the intermodal linertrain of containers of exports moves. Are you feeling lucky, punk? Building a completely new railway is of course the sort of thing that gets people in an MGI mood.

From a technocratic perspective, as Joe Romm explains here, restrictions on all the other stuff coal-fired power stations shit into the atmosphere are basically as good as a ban on them.

The question is therefore whether “green MGIs” are a serious possibility. It’s not actually necessary that the MGIs be specifically about what Greenpeace would call a green issue, of course. Rioting over pay or safety down the mines, over ethnic resentment in the coalfields, or over land appropriation for new power stations or railway lines would do as well. But it’s worth noting that environmental protests happened in the 1980s in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and acted as a sort of gateway drug to dissidence more broadly. Not that people who are willing to burn down the police headquarters and run the mayor out of town when they feel their interests are insufficiently recognised need one.

Relatedly, and also via LeVine, meet the Unitec Model 5 pneumatic hacksaw, guaranteed by the manufacturer to slice through a 24″ pipeline in one blow and only 16lbs dead weight to tote away from the scene of the crime. And it’s nothing but good American workmanship, too. Mesh wireless is so pre-Iraq by comparison, don’t you think?

local news: power cuts

We keep having power cuts. In eight days, we had three, all of them between 5.30am and 6am, which all lasted most of the morning. I know exactly when they happen, because the smoke alarms start beeping and wake me up. My partner claims she was warmer on a demo than she was in the flat during no.2. As they seem to follow a pattern of happening at the same time every other day – just about when power demand starts to turn back up in earnest – I was wide awake at 0545 today waiting for the plaintive beeps. But no – looking at the chart, the ramp-up is later on a Sunday. Mind you, later in the day the lights flickered repeatedly for half a minute.

So I rang up UK Power Networks’ (what used to be EDF Energy Networks, what used to be the London Electricity Board) press office and announced myself as a blogger. And the lights immediately went out…no, actually, they issued the following statement.

UK Power Networks would like to apologise to some customers in the
Holloway Road area of London who have experienced a series of power interruptions over recent weeks.

In the latest incident, power was interrupted to 327 customers at 5.54am today and restored to all customers affected by 11.20am.

The cause of the problem is believed to be an intermittent fault on an underground cable which our engineers are currently trying to trace. This can happen when the heat generated within the cable seals the damaged section, making it difficult to trace

Can it indeed. Let’s hope they don’t end up needing to do one of these.

pessimism+optimism = future

Pessimism: if we keep burning the coal, eventually keeping warm will be the least of our worries. Where’s your discount rate now, Timmeh?

Stupidity: can we get out of this Bruce Sterling novel now please?

Blame: it’s Coalistan vs. Everyone Else.

Logistics: China can’t lay railway track fast enough to move as much coal as they would want to burn if they don’t clean up.

Science: energy use drops spectacularly once density goes over 50 people+jobs/hectare.

Schadenfreude: the Murdoch Times retracts its IPCC-bashing. Detail; the text agreed with Prof. Simon Lewis was then mangled to fit with the Party Line.

More schadenfreude: Steve McIntyre hits peak readership and enters inevitable decline.

Optimism: Exponential growth curves cut both ways, dammit. If the wind and solar people keep it up, in 2027 they’ll be in charge. Prepare now for the Danish future.

More optimism: I remember when this used to be in books about the FUTURE.

it’s called “power” for a reason

This story from Rajiv Chandrasekharan about two rival approaches to sorting out Kandahar’s electricity supply is informative, but not just about its apparent topic. Basically, the US Army wants to go for a quick fix, installing a lot of mobile generators and trucking in the diesel fuel, in order to get the lights on as soon as possible. The US civilians in Afghanistan disagree, on the grounds that it’s a temporary hack that will be far too expensive for the Afghans to support in the longer run.

Incredibly, it turns out, the US/NATO base at Kandahar air field produces and consumes about 100 megawatts of electricity; the estimate for the gap between current levels and requirements is 42 megawatts. Obviously, the military has a point in that if it’s possible to produce that much electricity in the field, it may be foolish to keep playing around with grandiose projects when a call to Aggreko could cut it.

On the other hand, as in Iraq, electricity is deeply political. We speak of generating power for a reason.

Deploying 42MW of mobile diesel gensets to Kandahar is one kind of solution; it defines the issue as a discrete project, which can be solved by standard logistics methods, drawing on a private contracting firm that specialises in delivering surprisingly large electricity projects in containerised form. It also commits whoever rules in Kandahar to import large quantities of diesel through the shaky logistics pipeline from Pakistan, which means that somebody has to find the foreign exchange to back the most expensive way possible of generating power, and keep the roads reasonably open, which has its own military and political consequences.

You could argue that it’s not actually a solution – in fact, it’s a substitute for a solution, a temporary, containerised fix delivered as part of a standard tool-kit for counterinsurgency. A lot of people would argue that there is no such thing. Certainly, though, this option implies that donors continue to pay the bills, somebody continues to patrol the roads, and someone continues to pay off the Taliban between there and Quetta. I can’t help thinking, looking at a lot of the growing technology of instant urbanism (suitcase GSM base stations, palletised VSATs, Aggreko gensets, Sun Microsystems containerised data centres…) that a lot of this stuff might actually be a sort of negative toolkit of local optimisations. I’m trying to be optimistic, though; a less depressing example is here, in which South Sudan gets its own brewery. (I never realised producing beer was so bulk-increasing that it was worth importing all the inputs except for labour.)

On the other hand, the US civilians’ alternative is to press on with the Kajaki Dam project; the British Army brought off an incredibly complex tour de force in finally getting its new turbines delivered, involving a major operational-level deception plan, the building of a new road, and 4,000 men, but it’s still not making much progress. Adam Curtis would probably have something interesting to say about the fact that it’s been the major development plan for southern Afghanistan since the 1950s. The reason is, of course, that it embodied a particular political vision.

In terms of what might be called conflict urbanism (see this post) the Kajaki dam would seem to be a really bad idea; the plan is to generate power out in Taliban territory and have Kandahar depend on that. We know how well long-distance transmission lines survive in an environment of insurgency and counterinsurgency from Iraq; not at all. Of course, given that something like 40% of the power goes missing in transit, this is itself a sort of suboptimal political solution on the part of the people who live near the wires.

By comparison, generating power in town and having it radiate out to the villages is obviously a very different kind of politics – the conceptual fit with the counterinsurgents’ intellectual legacy is quite clear. However, I can’t help but doubt that anyone’s going to be importing all this diesel into Kandahar in two years’ time, nor that Aggreko or whoever’s expat staff will be entirely cool with a stint there. Of course, the problem is deeper than that; the contractors’ war-risk insurance policies come to mind.

The bill is apparently a cool $200 million; at $4/watt, a 42MW concentrating solar power plant would come in at $168m and produce power independently.

But I suspect this is as likely to happen as the other way of getting enough foreign exchange for Kandahar to buy its own fuel is to be accepted. Another notable fact is that the US Army is looking at getting the GCC countries to pay for the diesel bill – entrenching, in other words, southern Afghanistan in the Saudi sphere of influence.