29 December 2011

Review of 2011 - predictions for 2012

It's the year end, and time for me to review my predictions at the start of 2011.

11:11 campaign

How have I fared in my 11:11 campaign, i.e. to reduce my CO2 footprint by 11% in 2011? Given that we have relocated to Peru, there are a huge number of air miles in the equation, which probably means that I have failed to achieve a further reduction of 11% in my CO2 footprint this year. However, on the positive side:

1. We have installed a solar hot water system at the flat here in Arequipa. I am still trying to get the hang of guilt-free showers, but it's so nice to have hot water available that has no marginal energy cost other than to provide the water itself. There are still plans to install solar hot water when we return to England, but it hasn't happened yet. I'm going to claim this as a success.

2. Tertiary glazing - we installed some more robust perspex sheet tertiary glazing in many windows in the house, which is definitely a better solution. Again I'm going to claim this as a success, although there are still a number of windows in the house that could be fitted so the job isn't complete yet.

3. Yes I finished installing the loft insulation. In fact the loft is now mostly boarded as well, with the insulation underneath. Another success.

4. No wood-fired stove installed. But I did suggest it might have to wait until 2012. We'll see if that happens....

5. OK I didn't put in a 5 on the list, but I'm aware that living in Arequipa is fundamentally far less CO2-intensive - houses need no heating, we don't have a car but rely on foot, buses and sometimes taxis to get around.

So the big question is: what can I do for a 12:12 campaign, in other words can I reduce my carbon footprint by 12% in 2012? Given that we will almost certainly relocate back to England it's going to be very hard because there will be lots of air miles and we'll be moving to somewhere where energy usage is harder to avoid. Here's what I currently plan to do for 2012:

1. Solar hot water. This is still on the cards, and will almost certainly happen.

2. More perspex tertiary glazing in the rest of the house.

3. Maybe replace the boiler? It's not massively efficient, but given that the current boiler probably still has a number of years' life left in it and is about 80% efficient, the gain will not be that great.

4. Wood-fired stove - still a possibility but not a certainty. I've started to worry that having a smoke stack will put an oily residue on the photovoltaic panels, need to look into this further before deciding. If instead of the dining room we install it in the living room (which might be better anyway) there would be greater physical separation between the two.

5. Been reading some discussion about the use of dehumidifiers, and whether they can lead to an overall decrease in energy usage. My suspicion is that the direct effect is small, but maybe by reducing the damage caused by condensation which requires repainting (and ultimately probably more work) it can be beneficial in other ways. Having to dry clothing indoors in winter is a significant contributor to the condensation, so reducing this would be a benefit. If I can run it predominantly when there is photovoltaic electricity available then this would be a more tangible energy benefit.

Predictions for 2011.

1. Portugal and Spain will require a bailout. Well, I was right with Portugal but wrong with Spain. 50% success.

2.ISPs will drag their feet in the face of IPv4 address exhaustion. I think I was correct in this, although there are one or two encouraging signs of migration to IPv6.

3.Solar Photovoltaic installers will have a bumper year. I think up until the 12th December, I'm going to claim a success on this one. It seems that everyone was jumping on the bandwagon, and panel prices have dropped significantly. The turmoil in the industry created by the government's appalling handling of tariff reductions is a nasty sting in the tail to this story.

4. The UK government will collapse. Well, this hasn't happened, so I was wrong on this one.

5. I had absolutely no inkling of the political changes that would happen in the middle east, so maybe I should put in a retrospective number 5 and admit that I failed on this one.

Predictions for 2012

Here's my list of predictions for 2012. I feel a lot less certain about what's going to happen in 2012 for a number of reasons - I think there is fundamentally a lot more uncertainty in the world, and also not living in Europe for the latter half of 2011, I'm probably not as tuned in to the politics of the region although it's still where I feel my roots are.

1. I'm going to stick with the prediction that the UK coalition government will collapse and there'll be an election, although I suspect it will be a small Tory majority result.

2. There will be serious unrest in the UK due to government cutbacks, increasing poverty and unemployment and eurozone chaos. This in fact is what will lead to no. 1 happening, as a significant number of LibDem (and a few tory) MPs will blame this partly on government policy and rebel.

3. The Euro will survive, but not all countries currently in it will be a part of it. Most likely is that a block of poorer countries will be forced out of it and either form their own alliances or just go it alone - Portugal, Greece, Italy. There will be a lot of poverty in these countries as a result, with significant migration to richer countries. Italy is perhaps the big worry as it's a large economy, but the cumulative effects of ineffective government and corruption over many decades will come home to roost. Spain will survive as a Euro member.

4. House prices in the UK will continue to drift downwards slowly, but there will be no dramatic price movements.

5. There will be further political changes in the middle east - Syria, Iran and Israel/Palestine will be places to watch. It will probably get very nasty somewhere before it gets better. A bit of a vague prediction I realise, but I suspect there will be all-out war of some sort, most likely civil war in Syria. Feelings are still strong and issues remain unresolved in the region. No doubt the west will interfere and make things worse.

6. Margaret Thatcher will pass away, reigniting discussions about whether she should have a state funeral and who should pay for it. The papers will have a field day.

7. Prince Philip will pass away, which will cause the nation to unite (even fervent anti-royalists who mostly still respect him as a person) and put the dampers on the jubilee year celebrations.

That's it for now. Feels like the coming year has far more negatives than positives will a lot more uncertainty than previous years. By contrast, life here in Peru still feels very positive and with greater stability in the region. I won't hide my desire to stay here longer and put down deeper roots.

05 January 2011

Electric Vehicle Subsidies - A Good Policy?

Ever since the idea of an initial purchase subsidy for electric vehicles was announced, I have been a proponent of the scheme and claimed that it is an important stepping stone to a much better way of getting around. However, the more I read into the more I become concerned that it is unlikely to be a very effective way of achieving one of the main stated aims, which is to reduce CO2 emissions. Let me explain further.

The Economics

In the UK a new scheme has been introduced as of 1st January 2011 which provides a £5000 subsidy for electric vehicles. The current crop of battery-electric vehicles cost upwards of £25000 whereas the petrol or diesel equivalents are less than £15000. This difference is partly due to the battery which is an expensive component, but also due to a number of other technologies which are not as mature as the internal combustion engine. The fact that these cars are only likely to sell in small volumes is another factor in the elevated purchase price. The £5000 subsidy goes some, but not all of the way towards bringing the prices in line. With the raw costs quoted by the manufacturers the sales volumes would be extremely low without the subsidy, so the subsidy is in many ways an important way of encouraging manufacturers to enter this new and exciting market sector. Similar subsidies exist in many other countries and the overall effect is to make this market sector viable which would probably not be true otherwise. This is very similar to the feed-in tariff for microgeneration of electricity - it supports a market sector that would currently otherwise be unviable, but in a way that aims to bring economies of scale and technological maturity such that they will be viable and self-sustaining in the next few years.

The main benefit to the purchaser of an electric car is the much reduced running cost - 2p per mile for electric, as opposed to 14p per mile for petrol (from the AA and quoted by the guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2011/jan/05/petrol-prices-motorist). If the price differential is 12p per mile then a motorist has to travel 41666 miles, all other things being equal, in order to recover the additional purchase cost. An average motorist will do this distance in approximately 4 years, so based on these figures this looks like quite a good deal. However set against this is the fact that the current generation of vehicles are only capable of distances of around 100 miles before needing to be recharged. The risk of running out of fuel has been an issue since the motor car was invented but as most petrol cars can do more than 500 miles between refuelling, the issue is more acute with electric vehicles. This so-called range anxiety means that people who regularly travel long daily distances will not be buying electric cars. I believe it also means that single car families who own one car and just occasionally do longer distances would be unlikely to buy electric vehicles. By far the most likely purchasers are people who commute significant distances by car but whose return journey is within the range of the battery, or families who own two or more cars and would purchase an electric car as their second car.

Fixed Versus Marginal Costs

This is where I start to have my doubts. When people think about how much it costs per mile to travel by car, they usual think only of the fuel costs. This is by far the largest marginal cost of car travel but there are servicing costs, replacement tyres and other costs to consider as well. The main thing they don't consider are the fixed costs - the purchase cost of the car in the first place, insurance, vehicle excise duty, annual MOT and so forth. What electric cars do at present (with or without the subsidy) is to increase the fixed cost, but reduce the marginal cost. Whether this trade-off is a good thing or not depends on how much mileage you do. If you do high mileage then an electric vehicle is likely to make more economic sense, whereas a low mileage user will be worse off. It is the same effect as buying a Diesel-powered car as opposed to a petrol-powered one, but on a much larger scale - you pay more up front but the running costs are lower.

The Environmental Benefits

Up until now I have been very careful to avoid talking about the environment pros and cons of electric versus petrol cars. There is a lot of information (and an even greater amount of dis-information) on the internet about exactly how 'green' electric cars are.

Many of the concerns are about the chemicals in the batteries. I think it's very clear that, whilst it's not a non-issue, the issue is vastly smaller than those caused by internal combustion engines and their fuels. Electric vehicle batteries mainly contain lithium which is not particularly environmentally problematic although it does make them expensive. Some people have expressed concern about a limited global supply of lithium, but there are vast amounts available in sea water - it just happens currently to be cheaper to dig it out of the ground, and once this resource runs out we will be left with a much larger, but currently more expensive supply. We will either have to live with this more expensive supply or possibly someone will come up with a much cheaper means of extracting it from sea water. Either way, it will not run out quickly.

The other main concern, which I share, is about how the electricity is generated. Most journalists take a look at the UK electricity generation mix as a whole and assume that this proportion will apply to the electricity used to charge electric vehicles. However, one of the main benefits of electric vehicles is that they can be charged at night, therefore taking up 'slack' capacity that would otherwise go unused. This makes a huge amount of sense from a grid perspective, and will help to reduce the overall costs. However much of this slack capacity is take up by gas and coal generation which is fairly carbon-intensive. So every kWh added to the nighttime load is likely to be met by burning another 2.5kWh of coal or 2kWh of gas. This means that electric vehicles on the current grid will be effectively powered by our most polluting forms of generation. As the proportion of electricity generated by photovoltaics increases this problem will only get worse as this generation capacity goes offline at night.

My feeling about whether electric vehicles are better or worse than petrol vehicles (from a CO2 perspective) is that they are in fact better by a significant amount, but not as much as many people would have you believe. In fact, I doubt they currently do much better than the latest efficient diesel-powered cars, which are vastly cheaper to purchase. Of course the main promise of electric vehicles is that the grid will gradually increase the proportion generated by renewables, and the most polluting forms will form a diminishing proportion of the mix.

Jevons Paradox Applied to Travel

Let us take a look back at the cost per mile issue. Jevons paradox was originally applied to the use of coal in the early days of the industrial revolution, and made the observation that increasing efficiency in how coal was used didn't lead to an overall decline in how coal was used. Because coal used more efficiently, it this became viable to use it in more situations, and hence the total size of the coal-using industries increased such that the total usage actually increased.

Applying that to car travel, we see that currently one of the biggest disincentives for people to travel by car is the perceived cost per mile. At 14p per mile, a journey of 60 miles (say a return trip from Cambridge to Peterborough) would cost £8.40. Whilst most car owners could easily afford this, they would certainly not want to make this journey all the time unless it was financially beneficial in other ways. However, at 2p per mile this journey would cost a mere £1.20 - an amount far less likely to figure as significant in people's thinking. The outcome of this is that people are far more likely to make journeys of this length if the cost is low. So by increasing the cost efficiency with which people can make a journey, the chances are that they will make far more journeys. In the absence of any other factors coming in to play, it's even conceivable that the total money spent on making journeys could increase, as the main constraint (cost) to making the journey is relaxed. This would be Jevons paradox applied to travel. In reality, however, cost isn't the only constraint present and some of the other constraints are likely to come into play long before this point is reached. The main other constraints in this case are time and traffic congestion. As people travel more and more both of these constraints will become worse as the road network grinds to a horrible, congested gridlock of silent clean electric vehicles.

So from this it seems to me that the main effect of a transition to electric cars is to reduce the cost of motoring but to increase the time it takes to travel and to increase the levels of congestion on the roads, with a potential future reduction in associated CO2 emissions. This doesn't sound quite like the world I would like to live in.

A Better Alternative

Despite my misgivings about the current economics of the electric vehicle subsidy, I do think it could have been applied with some specific changes that would make it far more effective without as much of a downside.

Firstly, if it were only applied to commercial vehicles and not personal vehicles it could have a significant effect on pollution levels in cities, where particulate pollution from diesel engines is a significant problem. Many commercial vehicles only cover a limited daily mileage so the reduced range would not be a problem. With a reduced size of market the subsidy per vehicle could be significantly more than £5000 at the start.

Secondly, it could have been applied far more widely to electric scooters and electrically-assisted bicycles. The subsidy per vehicle would be a lot less and it could help far more people. It would also persuade many people who drive a 5-person car to work at 20% capacity (causing congestion and pollution as a result) to switch to a much cheaper, and ultimately less problematic mode of transport. As many motorcycles have a much smaller range than cars, a switch to electric propulsion is much less problematic.

Thirdly, the subsidy is a flat amount with an upper limit on how many vehicles it can be applied to. A much better approach would be to model it on the microgeneration feed-in tariffs. These start off very generous in order to encourage growth and maturity in the industry, but then decrease at a well-published rate. This has the effect of encouraging people to 'get in early' before the subsidy level reduces, and gives suppliers a strong incentive to reduce their manufacturing costs over time.

Fourthly it could have been made dependent upon the user getting their electricity supply from renewable resources, thus increasing the demand for this electricity. This could have been administered via the renewable suppliers such that the user is contractually obliged to stay renewable for, say, 5 years or else the subsidy becomes repayable. The contract for this would need to change ownership with the car, and would therefore have a significant effect on the resale value of vehicles.

By focussing the funds on the commercial vehicle and electric scooter/electrically assisted bicycle sectors, they are still supporting an emerging market sector which has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions very significantly. In the second case, it would cause a direct reduction in emissions as people switched away from petrol cars. In both cases it would support economies of scale in the manufacture of electric vehicles, and the maturing of various technologies involved. To me, it seems this would have been a much better way of spending my money (via the public purse) in the support of battery-electric vehicles. The third and fourth points would accelerate the rate at which the intended effect of reducing CO2 emissions took place.

In summary, I think the scheme represents a massive missed opportunity. As such, I have come to the conclusion that it is not an effective use of taxpayers' money.

01 January 2011

Review of 2009/2010

As I never got round to reviewing 2009, I'll have to include that year in my review here but will be fairly brief. I made 4 predictions:

1. There will be a second generation of UMPCs, based around ARM processors for extreme low power. Many of them will run GNU/Linux.

This one I think I'll claim as a successful prediction, mainly. There have been a large
number of computers, based around ARM processors, with a highly portable form factor. However these have been mainly smart phones, and more recently devices such as the ipad (OK the prediction was for 2009 and this didn't arrive until 2010). We are yet to see what I would call general-purpose computer platforms emerging around the ARM platform. However I have been using a Sheeva Plug as a file server, which comes fairly close. It doesn't have built-in graphics capability so is only really suitable as a server-type device, but it comes shipped with a port of Ubuntu and I am now running debian on it. I believe there is a BSD port available too.

2. Hybrid cars will take off in the market.

There is considerably more hope that this will be the case now than when I made the prediction, and it is likely that fully-electric cars will become visible in 2011 (although still fairly niche). I think it's probably a failed prediction for 2009 and even 2010, but maybe will be true sometime soon.

3. 2009 will see many more 'household names' going bust because of the recession.

Gosh. A lot has happened, and I can't remember (and can't be bothered to search for) the exact chronology, but a number of household names have gone bust. Woolworths, Magnet, RBS, Northern Rock. I think a number of construction companies too. Mostly a successful prediction, although not quite as bad as I thought.

4. The UK will be forced to abolish the pound and will join the Euro

Having read back to this prediction, I am laughing at myself. The current talk is now of the Euro collapsing, and countries going back to national currencies. The pound seems safe for now, but crises in Greece and Ireland, and possible forthcoming crises in Spain and Portugal have caused journalists to speculate about the Euro's demise. Personally, I am still struggling to see this as being a problem with the Euro per se, as opposed to problems within certain states that are members of the Euro. I cannot see how any country could really pull out of the Euro unilaterally, whether a weaker or a stronger country. The value of the Euro doesn't seem to have been affected yet although that could change.

A quick review of 2010

Towards the end of 2009 I personally signed up to the 10:10 campaign, which aimed to encourage people to reduce their CO2 emissions by 10% in 2010. I decided to take this seriously and see what I could do. It's almost impossible to know how successful I was but there are three main things I did - replacing all the halogen spotlights with LED lights, adding some perspex tertiary glazing and installing photovoltaics on the roof.

The LED lighting should make a significant difference although I've not done an accurate estimate. It's true that although it is possible to find LED lights of adequate quality/brightness, they're still limited to the more expensive end of the market. Don't bother with cheaper ones, they're a waste of time. Also stated equivalent brightness from most suppliers is...well...a lie. New regulations should fix this though as they will need to state lumens, which enables a fair comparison.

The tertiary glazing was a late addition and very hard to judge, but it has reduced condensation (a big problem in this house) quite significantly so I believe it's doing something useful.

I'll fully admit that the photovoltaic installation was a financial decision to take advantage of the feed-in-tariff scheme that started in April, more than an environmental decision. However my electricity consumption measured over a year was 2900kWh, and this should harvest (I prefer that word to the more usual 'generate') about 1900kWh per year. Current trends suggest it may be more than this, although it's hard to tell and will vary in any case from year to year. So it will harvest approximately 65-70% of my usage, which is not too bad at all. The embodied energy should be paid back within 2 years and although the feed-in-tariff lasts for 25 years they should continue to harvest energy for considerably longer, tailing off gradually over time. The most likely thing to go wrong is the inverter. The depressing thing is that the gas usage of the house over the same period was 29000kWh, or 10 times as much (ignoring the fact that thermal electricity power stations are usually 30-50% efficient).

The other main change in 2010 is that I am now working from home. I am really enjoying the flexibility and convenience of this, although occasionally there are distractions from other family members that can be problematic. In many ways I wish I'd made the transition earlier. One side effect is that I will have an increased electricity consumption (especially to heat the office) but this is really just transferred from an external employer to myself, and not new consumption. So I am choosing to ignore this.


I have now decided that I'm going to do my own 11:11 campaign, in the absence of any nationally- or globally-coordinated equivalent - i.e. aim to reduce my CO2 by a further 11% during 2011.

Here is what I think I can do to achieve this. I aim to review at the end of they year what I have actually done.

1. A solar hot water system.
I deliberately left one part of the roof free to enable such a system to be installed. However, investigation of what's required suggests that I will need a new hot water storage tank, as the current one is too small and not suitable. This will add considerably to the expense, and it's not clear yet whether this factor will derail the plan. However I can also upgrade the heating controls as part of this, and I reckon this would also reduce the energy consumption quite considerably. Hard to know but the two together should reduce the gas consumption by 20-25% by my estimation. This alone would probably achieve my 11% overall reduction.

2. More tertiary glazing, plus thicker curtains in more places (primarily the dining room). Currently we have some of the thin film insulation over many windows which is surprisingly effective, but it looks a bit unsightly and also doesn't last more than a year and is fragile. Thick curtains have made a big difference upstairs so if we can reduce heat loss in the dining room and kitchen (which is now the coldest room in the house in the mornings) this should make a big difference.

3. Finish loft insulation. To my shame there is an unopened roll of loft insulation that just needs laying out (less than an hour to do). I should lay this over the remaining parts of the loft with only 5 inches of insulation. I could also do something to raise the boards up and allow more insulation in the central section too.

4. Wood-fired stove in the living room. I'll probably actually save this until 2012, but this could be a really nice feature in the room and allow us to use sustainable wood to provide some of the heating, as well as enabling us to heat just this room to a high temperature during the day. However wood is not cheap to come by in the Cambridge area, so I need to investigate this further.

Predictions for 2011

Here's a stab in the dark at what I think will happen in this year.

1. Portugal and Spain will both require some sort of bailout, similar to what Greece and Ireland have had. This is not rocket science and is what the mainstream press is saying, and I believe them.

2. ISPs will drag their feet in the face of IPv4 address exhaustion, and rather than pushing IPv6 will push existing kludges such as NAT as a way round it. This is somewhat depressing but I see little evidence of them taking the issue seriously.

3. Solar Photovoltaic installers will have a bumper year and do very well as the feed-in-tariff is the same as last year but the scheme is known about by a lot more people - not least because there are many visible installations from this year. Panel prices will continue to drop but the overall cost will stay the same as this year (or even rise) due to high demand.

4. The UK coalition government will collapse, and we'll have a general election. Labour will be returned to power, but not necessarily with a majority. There is plenty of evidence of tensions between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives (no surprises there) and insufficient mechanisms were put in place to deal with them. They should concentrate on doing this things that they broadly agree on, and not push the policies where they differ significantly. That's the only way they could survive a full term as a coalition. The recent student funding changes were very damaging to both parties in my view, although the LibDems have suffered most in the short term. Also, the austerity measures will bite and cause mass protests and the country will go into recession again.

That's it for now.