Category Archives: environment

A sacrifice on the altar

Communities Minister Eric Pickles

The Thugs’ Best Friend

I had to spend a lot of time in Brighton over the autumn, winter and spring.  Just a few minutes walk from George Street in Hove, a satellite-town-centre shopping street.  George Street has long been pedestrianised during shopping hours, making it a pleasant place to go for one’s shopping, or for a refreshment at one of its many pubs or cafés.  The only fly in the ointment was that on Sundays it was open to cars, turning it from a pleasant place to a stressful no-go area.

This winter was different.  I went there several times during regular weekday shopping hours, only to find it infested by cars.  After a little while I learned to treat it as a no-go area at all times.  A sad loss: there’s no comparable shopping street for some distance.  I don’t know why such a street has been sacrificed.  The local council is run by the Green Party: perhaps they’re as false to their roots as all the rest, but even so this seems extraordinary.

Today’s news: our towns are yet again to be sacrificed on the altar of the Great God motorcar.  This time it’s parking, and no matter how much commonsense and/or the law want to save an area for people, councils are to be deprived of the practical means to enforce anything.  Of course the propagandists wheeled out several motorists with legitimate-sounding horror stories of having been fined unreasonably, yet none of those were caught by the enforcement systems they’re banning!

The thugs’ best friend has struck another blow against humanity, and no doubt driven another nail into the coffin of many a town centre.

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Powering the future

I have a few quid invested in the well-known forms of renewable energy.  The more successful investments are in managed funds which benefit from venture capital tax breaks.

But I’ve hitherto been missing what is surely the UK’s best renewable energy resource: the sea that surrounds us.  In particular the tidal flows that raise and lower vast amounts of water around our coast, completely reliably, every day.

Back in the 1990s when I worked with satellite images, one striking set showed the shallow waters of the North Sea off the Essex and Suffolk coast, where the phase of the tide can be seen from space due to the surface wave patterns caused by the rapid tidal flow in and out.  Mile after mile of shallow water and powerful, reliable flows: westward as the tide rises, eastward as it falls.  Why are we not installing underwater turbines to harness all that energy?  In places there are wind turbines harnessing an altogether more fickle source, so there is presumably even the infrastructure to erect turbines and harvest energy!

Well, I haven’t found anyone building tidal stream technology in the North Sea, but there is a credible alternative suitable for certain coastal locations and capable of generating substantial amounts.  And there is a project to build a tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay.  It looks like a win-win: they’ve gone to a lot of trouble to design a facility that serves not only to generate substantial power, but also to make an environmental and recreational virtue of it.  It appears to have a good level of local support, judging by what I can find in sources such as comments at the local paper’s website.

And the project is open for  investment.  And it’s offering EIS tax breaks, which are even better than the venture capital breaks I enjoy on other investments[1].  And due diligence gives me confidence in the management, not least the man in charge who has a very impressive track record and a lot of his own money at stake.

That’s a lot of very positive boxes ticked.  Today I finally got around to filling in the application form and writing my cheque.  I’m investing in our best future energy source.

[1] 30% tax break up-front, with a lock-in of just 3 years, compared to 5 for Venture Capital.  And further downside protection in that if the investment fails I can offset any losses against tax all over again.

Energy inefficiency

I got an unsolicited package through the post: four “low-energy” light bulbs.  They’re from British Gas (a domestic energy supplier), and no doubt part of an effort to play “green”.  I guess they can join the spare bulbs I already have sitting in a drawer.

As feelgreen efforts go, it seems mostly harmless: a low-cost effort that could have a very marginal positive outcome.  But as ever, there’s a downside: these are old-fashioned, ugly bulbs, and could reinforce prejudices about “energy-saving” bulbs being horrible in people like my mother.

More problematic is the government’s latest: free or subsidised improvements to the insulation of some peoples homes.  Again, on a narrow view there should be a positive outcome, but this time it’s not cheap&easy: the energy companies could more usefully direct their resources to clean energy.  Rising energy costs are the right stimulus to home insulation.  And, unlike the light bulbs, free home insulation is limited to homeowners, and so completely excludes the poor.

Having said that, there is at least an argument that the government is doing the right thing.  Namely, political expedience.  The fact that energy companies will be paying helps defuse the pressure for a so-called windfall tax: something that would damage their ability to invest in the future, not so much in direct costs, but in scaring investors away.  It could even do collateral damage in other industries.

Alas, none of this does anything for clean energy.  The Alice-in-Wonderland windfall handed to energy generators[1] in free CO2 allowances is genuine and very wrong.  If we accept the carbon market, it should be operated by auction to the highest bidders.  If relief to polluters is considered necessary, give them some measure of corporation tax relief tied to the energy they produce, so clean energy gets the benefits.

[1] who are not the same as domestic providers – something the commentators seem to overlook.

Solar Energy: Handouts for the Rich

Today’s junkmail: someone providing solar energy for the home.  Oh, and the private swimming pool.  With big subsidies: up to 100% on selected promotional properties, and government subsidies on others.  Great!  Clean energy on the very-cheap.

Unless of course you’re stuck with renting your home, and any such investment would be in the hands of your landlord.  Yep, like so many benefits, this one excludes the poorest 30% (or whatever) of the population, who just get the privilege of subsidising richer folks.  OTOH, rather pay for their solar power than their excessive consumption of dirty energy.  Except – we get to do that too, through a range of payments, as well as tax-breaks like low-rate VAT.

How’s this for a radical suggestion.  Increase solar-energy microgeneration while at the same time benefitting poorer folks by legislating for its installation in rented property.  Add ever-tougher energy standards as mandatory requirements when letting a property.  To include basic solar panels for any property with a south-facing area of roof.  In the case of flats, these should feed communal (but metered) hot water supplies.  Nah, dream on …

Disjointed thinking

We know that the powers-that-be can’t do joined-up thinking and come up with coherent policies.

The coincidence of two news items today illustrates this rather clearly:

  • Congestion charging for Manchester.
  • Social and Economic benefits of a much-improved broadband infrastructure.

Manchester’s proposed congestion charge will, at best, work like London’s. That’ll only happen if there’s consistent political will to make it work. It needn’t take more than one person in a key management position to scupper it, and turn it into an expensive fiasco. Think “Sir Humphrey”, though if he opposed a proposal he’d (one hopes) at least stop it before spending billions on it. But at best, congestion charging is a poor substitute for John Major’s fuel price escalator.

Coupled with the congestion charge will be a huge investment in public transport. That is, public investment: the state poking its nose in. We’ll pour billions of taxpayers money into providing more inefficient and polluting transport so we can move ever more heavy, reluctant bodies on their daily journey to the cubicle. Public transport should be less polluting than private, but that’s not automatic. Even if they get it right it’s a marginal improvement, and massive public investment is a great way to get it wrong.

Meanwhile, also today, the Broadband Stakeholder Group‘s report points to benefits such as flexible working, lifelong learning, and a big impact on social exclusion. Now that’s an altogether better way to invest large sums of public money. Instead of one city catching up with where it should’ve been maybe two generations ago (by European standards), the whole country can catch up with where it should be NOW!

Actually I don’t think public money should go into broadband either, except at the fringes to ensure universal basic availability. Let the market do that, and let it compete honestly with old-fashioned transport. With energy much more realistically priced than it has been for a couple of generations, efficiency will soon win. Sustainably.

Stop subsidising last century’s solutions!

Stand up for fatties!

Was it not Martin Luther King who said we should judge a man “not by the colour of his skin, but by the content of his character“? When faced with a report saying “Obese blamed for the world’s ills“, I say it’s time we invoked the great man’s rhetoric. Judge me not by the amplitude of my girth, but by the content of my character!

When I heard of the report, my first reaction was to try and seek out the original. Failing that, I thought I’d leave it: the news reports probably misrepresent it anyway. But then today out cycling up Dartmoor, I met a chap even more rotund than myself on a bike, and looking plenty fit enough for Dartmoor’s hills, and thought maybe this is at least blogworthy. This kind of report – judging people for what they are – is perilously close to the kind of prejudice Dr King’s people suffered.

I’m a fatty, so I eat 18% more calories than average?

Probably guilty as charged, though I eat a small fraction of what I did in my youth, before the middle-age spread set in. But against that, the fact I don’t eat meat must surely in itself put my dietary carbon footprint well below the developed-world average.

But more than that: I’m sure my good layer of natural organic insulation is one reason I don’t need to heat my environment in the English winter. Not the only reason: the fact that I’m fit and healthy helps, as does the legacy of my youth when the cost of heating was out of the question, meaning I got used to nature’s temperatures. But anyway, I have no doubt that my layer of fat more than pays for itself in carbon emissions saved.

And I drive an excessive amount?

Definitely not guilty: the last time I drove was a little over three years ago, when I hired a van for a day to move house. I use a combination of bicycle and public transport for all my travel. More importantly, I make efforts to avoid unnecessary travel, particularly that western-country ritual of commuting, which I have eliminated altogether from my life. To cap it all, my life’s work is dedicated to developing the infrastructure for many more people – in principle everyone in the knowledge economy – to be able to avoid much of their travel.

So I guess I’m guilty of being portly, just as Dr King was guilty of being black. I don’t see that either of us has anything to be ashamed of!

Hearing the wildlife

On Tuesday night, staying in a guest house in Camberley, I got a taste of Surrey’s good side.  The guest house is situated in parkland, with some major sources of noise and pollution at a distance.  From my bedroom, I could hear the M3 and the Heathrow flight path, but both were no more than gentle background noises.  I could also hear an owl, and later the dawn chorus.

Tonight, too, I can hear an owl here in Tavistock.  I think my night in Camberley must have sensitised me to the sound.  But normally I just don’t notice it, as it’s very faint compared to some of the less pleasant human-generated noises.

It just goes to show, in terms of wellbeing, what matters most is the immediate surroundings.  It can be in-town or in the country, but if it’s sufficiently peaceful it’s nice, whereas if it’s exposed to too much pollution it’s stressful and nasty.

I guess that’s heavily reflected in house prices.  Maybe I can get somewhere quiet by paying £200/month more in rent.

Paradigm shift: Eliminating waste heat

In a comment on my recent blog entry, Mads points to water-cooled systems from Sun.  In another comment, John mentions a project he’s involved in that may or may not get the goahead to harness heat from a data centre.

Following Mads’s link, I see Sun claims its watercooled systems to 40% more efficient than some alternative – presumably one that would be equivalent in functional terms.  Whilst 40% may be better than nothing, it’s still a helluva lot of waste.  You could say you waste 50% more than you save.  What is missing from Sun’s pages is any suggestion of harnessing that energy and putting it to good use.

What Sun should produce, and what could make the decision much easier for John’s project, is systems in which capturing and re-using waste heat is integral.  A plumber should be able to able to plug them in to a normal heating system, just as they would another heat source like a boiler or immersion heater.  That is a paradigm shift in computer design, and it is indeed manufacturers such as Sun who are best-placed to take the lead in it.

On a smaller scale, manufacturers of desktop and home computers could perhaps do something similar.  A computer with builtin water cooling, that could be plugged in to the cold water supply feeding a domestic water tank.  So the computer’s waste heat goes into the household or office heating/hot water, and less energy is required from conventional sources.  The cooling system is plumbed in, but the computer’s innards need to be accessible so components can be changed whenever necessary.

In the case of desktop-replacements, that’ll work best where the water tank is within bluetooth range of the desk for connecting peripherals.  But if the idea takes off, we’ll soon see it incorporating longer-range options, such as a terminal that just plugs straight in to a wireless router (whose heat should really also be captured), or wired mini-boosters.  The principle is simple: concentrate energy use in the plumbed-in components, and minimise it elsewhere.

Waste heat

Just mentioned this on IRC … and it occurs to me that it’s something the chattering classes don’t seem to have noticed. Perhaps if I blog about it, someone might.

Heat exchange is a lot more efficient than generating heat. So we should be using heat exchangers to harness far more of the heat that we generate. Some slight efforts have been made in this direction with combined heat and power, and with harnessing industrial heat for heating living or working space.

On the other hand, all the heat from my computer goes to waste. That on its own is fairly negligible, but in a big data centre that’s a lot of heat. Surely it’s time for server, rack, and other infrastructure-manufacturers to incorporate water-cooling pipes, so that their waste heat can be pumped into an exchange? The industry should adopt a standard size and placement for cooling pipes, so that components can slot together and just work.

With Nature’s heat, it’s the same story. Geothermal heat is popular in some of the most obvious places, like volcanic Iceland where it’s abundant and cheap. But heat exchange works even where there isn’t that extra natural heat: for example, in the UK, it can drastically reduce the energy required to heat a building. Not something you can easily retrofit, but it’s a shame to see it being ignored in new buildings.

One thing I would like to retrofit, if I had a garden, is a heat-exchange with a compost heap. That should be relatively easy, and compost generates lots of heat. Should work well for heating water, or feeding into a heating system.

Sounds like a great class of technology project for sixth-formers or college students with practical abilities. Any students or teachers listening? What are you doing?

Winter == this morning

This morning we had a sufficiently hard frost for much of town to be dressed in white.

Why am I remarking on such a perfectly normal thing?  Because it’s no longer normal.  We’re a thoroughly maritime climate, meaning we get neither cold winters nor hot summers.  But twenty years ago we’d have had our first such frost sometime in November, and the coldest days would remain below freezing all day.  Indeed, the government in the 1980s introduced a “cold weather” payment to help pensioners, which was triggered when the temperature maximum remained below -2 for several consecutive days (I forget how many).

And now, a first visible frost comes only in February, and is pretty much gone by 11a.m.  No wonder things like English wine are becoming mainstream!