Thursday, July 31, 2008

Emergent Homes

First of all, this idea may already be out there in production. If so please let me know as I will buy it and promote it. If not, does anyone want to work with me to make it happen?

Current systems for home automation and monitoring are based on command and control. A central unit monitors all the information available and decides when appliances should turn on or off. The disadvantages of this model are that you are stuck with one supplier for the whole system. If a standard is agreed, as with Zigbee this might be less of an issue, but still, to develop new devices you must buy a zigbee chip and get to grips with controlling it. Do we not alreay have all the standards we need?

All electric devices are on an electricity network already and internet over powerlines is already available and the X10 guys have been using powerlines for automation for years, so I propose using standard microprocessors or internet 0 as proposed here and available for about $1 each. The only standard to develop is an XML format for broadcasting information on the network. Different suppliers can then develop different devices to put on the electricity network. These modules would simply plug into a standard socket, and where required, provide a socket to plug an appliance into.

Pricing - modules takes a feed from the internet that has the current electricity price and forcast price and/or weather forecast. For example, this feed from Synergy Module
Recording - a module to upload selected information being broadcast on the network to a local PC or an internet application. Could also provide a current readout of essential information such as current price, current devices on, current electricity usage.

Sensor - different sensor modules can monitor and broadcast electricity usage, temperature, humidity etc.

Controller - has simple rules for controlling appliances that are programmed using a PC or additional device. eg. Turn the fridge off if the price goes above 20c but don't keep turned off for more than 2 hours during the day or 4 hours at night. Run the washing machine when the price drops below 6c for more than 30 mins but don't stop it for more than 10 mins once it's started and it must finish within 2 days.

Phone interface - Ability to dial in and turn on the heating before you get home.

There is no controller. Each module has it's own intelligence and operates on a small set of rules. This is similar to the way simple organisms such as slime moulds display complex behaviour and is called emergence see also here.

The big advantage is that it allows a large number of companies to start making products very quickly and cheaply using existing technology, and for them to evolve as the market does. There is no need for the consumer to buy a whole new system, they just get the whizzy new "washsave" module from the company that specialises in washing machines, until manufacturers start to build it in. As the only new standard here is how to format the XML, this could be agreed quickly (???) and evolved over time without having to change any hardware.

So, tell me someone is doing it already, or the big flaw in this idea? We waste a lot of electricity in our homes and while it may not look significant individually if we could roll a system like this out very quickly, because it was cheap and easy to use, this could make a big difference to energy use and carbon emissions.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Testing Email notification of new blog postings

By entering your email address on the left you can subscribe to a google group that sends auto notifications when a new blog post is added here.

Thanks to the posts here for explaining how to do it:

How to stay awake on a long drive

After an exhausting couple of days talking about economics and the future under various scenarios with Richard Douthwaite up in Westport, I was faced with the 4.5 hour drive from Castlebar home to West Cork. This was 6pm after having my windscreen repaired as the car had been broken into while partked at the Two Mile Inn in Limerick the day before...

Wondering how on earth I was going to keep awake I started listening to some TED talks and on came Bjorn Lomborg. Mr Lomborg's book, The Skeptical Environmentalist written in 2001 left me flummoxed as to how a seemingly intelligent person could treat environmental problems in isolation taking no regard for the interconnectedness of all things. Mr Lomborg makes a very strong case that all is well and getting better in almost every area of the environmental by taking a restricted view of the data and making statements about the future as though he had been there. You are left saying, yes but.......

Here is his conclusion in the energy chapter written in 2001.

The evidence clearly shows that we are not headed for a major energy crisis. There is plenty of energy.
We have seen that although we use more and more fossil energy we have found even more. (no, we are discovering only 1 barrel for every 4 we use) Our reserves - even measured in years of consumption - of oil, coal and gas have increased (over what period?). Today we have oil for at least 40 years at present consumption (assuming we can bring it to market as fast as it is required, which is the whole point about about peak oil), at least 60 years' worth of gas , and 230 years' worth of coal (reserves of coal are shrinking).
At $40 a barrel (less than one-third above the current world prices), shale oil can supply oil for the next 250 years at current consumption (because of the energy required to extract shale oil, it is not a matter of price but of energy in vs. energy out and shale oil has always been marginal.  Using energy for such low returns rapidly depletes remaining supplies of fossil fuel energy). And all in all there is oil enough to cover our total energy consumption for the next 5,000 years (how?). There is uranium for the next 14,000 years (that includes all the uranium in sea water I presume). Our current energy costs make up less than 2 percent of the global GDP (only if you measure direct energy costs and ignore embedded costs) and , so even if we were to see large price increases it would still not have significant welfare impact (it would seem not) - in all likelihood the budget share for energy would still be falling.

[He then talks about the promise of renewables]

In the longer run, it is likely that we will change our energy needs from fossil fuels towards other and cheaper energy sources - maybe renwables, maybe fusion, maybe some as-of-now unimagined technology. Thus, just as the stone age did not end for the lack of stone, the oil age will eventually end but not for lack of oil. Rather, it will end because of the eventual availability of superior technology. 

Well that's okay then. We must be imagining all the current concern about increasing energy prices.

Still 7 years, his thinking must have matured?

His TED presentation goes something like this. We can't solve all the world's major problems at once so we need to prioritise. We (a select bunch of economists including 4 Nobel Laureates) have ranked these problems according to the solutions cost-effectiveness. Bottom of the list is Climate Change. He accurately predicts that his audience may be a bit surprised by this! The reasoning goes like this. It is going to cost $150bn a year to reduce climate change and all models show that it is only going to delay climate change for 6 years. With half the money we can solve all major basic problems in the world, so doesn't it make sense to do that instead? Even in the most pessimistic scenarios, the UN estimate that the average person in the developing world by 2100 will be about as rich as we are today. Much more likely they will be 2-4 times richer. So do we want to spend a lot of money helping, 100 years from now, a fairly rich Dutchman or do we want to help real poor people right now?

Fuming about this kept me going all the way home without a break!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Energy Demand - Just because we want it, doesn't mean we are going to get it!

Listening to a podcast on the solution to the energy problem (nuclear in the case), I was increasingly frustrated by the fundamental assumptions the speaker was making about the future that are dubious if not plain wrong. So at a future date I am going to do a blog on all the assumptions, often unstated, that are being made in the energy area. These include, oil production will continue to increase (Internation Energy Outlook for 2008 EIA), mix of energy types (liquid/gas/electric) will remain about the same, energy production will continue to be largely centralised, no new technology that can significantly effect supply or demand, the future will continue the trends of the past and for this post, energy demand will continue to grow at current rates.

(Note that graph does not seem to match with text in EIA report:
Total non-OECD energy demand increases by 85 percent in the IEO2008 reference case projection, as compared with an increase of 19 percent in OECD energy use. The robust growth in demand among the non-OECD nations is largely the result of strong projected economic growth. In all the non-OECD regions combined, economic activity—as measured by GDP in purchasing power parity terms—increases by 5.2 percent per year on average, as compared with an average of 2.3 percent per year for the OECD countries.)

For energy demand to continue to increase at this rate, the assumptions underlying this are:
  • demand = consumption
  • consumption is met by energy producers
  • increasing demand/consumption requires additional energy generation capacity
The first assumption under this heading, is that energy demand equals energy consumption. In the past the market has been able to match demand by increasing production. The whole point about peak oil is that production cannot be further increased and therefore there may be a demand there, but it cannot necessarily be met.

The second assumption is that there will continue to be a centralised model of energy supply. Large power stations or windfarms put electricity onto the grid and the consumer takes electricity from the grid. Large oil companies supply liquid fuels to filling stations. Gas companies move gas along pipelines to point of use. Distributed power generation is increasing with small generation also feeding into the grid, but micro-generation can bypass the grid altogether, feeding direct to an appliance or into a buildings supply. Farmers are growing their own biodiesel and having it processed locally. It is therefore possible for energy consumption to increase but for demand for energy from suppliers to decrease.

For our lifetimes, energy has been cheap. So cheap that we can afford to waste it. Electricity suppliers have been forced to meet our demands to use as much energy as we want whenever we want. This leads to huge peaks and troughs in demand both an a daily, weekly and seasonal basis, and sudden peaks such as the end of a the World Cup Football when all the kettles go on. Variable pricing and smart metering is starting to be introduced and the effect of this will be to allow us to make use of energy when it is cheap (and plentiful) and defer use when it is expensive. We can run our washing machines when it is windy and cheap, rather than waiting to run out of clean clothes. Businesses can top up their refrigerator plant on windy nights and shut them down quickly in the case of sudden peaks of electricity demand. Petrol has been so cheap that we can afford to lose 80% of it's energy in heat and friction in the combustion engines that drive our cars, electric cars are inherently more efficient, even including losses from electricity generation (see

We have an insatiable appetite for cheap energy and my long term view is that we will work out how to harness the abundant energy that surrounds us. In the future we will be able to generated energy when we want it and where we want it. Each machine will create its own energy and maybe our homes will be their own mini-grid. The national grids will become a phase in history and energy demand and energy consumption will only be of interest to academics who must estimate our usage.

But I do not expect to see that in my lifetime! In developed countries, in the short term, I expect to see the need for large scale additional energy production decline because:

  1. Production from power plants will be used more efficiently. With smart metering, variable pricing, intelligent homes and demand response we can flatten the peaks and use up the troughs.
  2. The price of energy is reaching a tipping point where it is eating into peoples disposable income. People will be actively looking for ways to reduce their energy use by reducing waste and using costly energy more efficiently - sales of SUVs are falling, more is being spent on home insulation etc.
  3. Innovation around energy use in products will significantly increase their efficiency. It has not been cost effective until now to spend significant money on R&D in this area. Once product designers start looking at the way products use energy as a whole, rather than just increasing efficiency of existing technology, significant gains can be made. The promise of nanotechnology is to create minute motors that use far less energy and increase the efficiency of energy generation. This might mean shaking a laptop once an hour to generate enough energy to run it!
  4. Micro generation is becoming affordable, reducing demand from the grid.
  5. Repair rather than Replace. As it becomes more expensive to make disposable products because of the increase in price of energy to make and distribute products and the increasing price of feedstock (plastic is made largely from oil), companies will move towards designing products for repair. This is already happening as insurance companies seek to repair instead of replace on claims. Repairs, especially with development of small scale fabrication equipment mean components can be manufactured locally, and this will require less energy.
(I have to say I am not 100% convinced of my own argument that we won't need additional large scale generation plant - but I want to throw it out there just to challenge assumptions that are being made.)

Developing countries have the opportunity to avoid our wasteful mistakes but also have different challenges:
  • increasing population - fertility rates in developed countires are generally less than replacement, which is about 2.33 but depends on the country. See league table here and article in wikipedia
  • need to address poverty - increasing standard of living for the poor requires more energy.

So while some of the factors for developed counties hold true, energy consumption will certainly increase if economic conditions allow. However, some of this consumption could be from locally produced supply.

China's consumption of energy is growing rapidly and 70% of it from Coal. World energy production will be heavily influenced by what happens in China. It is not clear to me what proportion of China's energy is used in producing goods for export, which will suffer a downturn should energy production and transport costs become high enough to make local production cheaper. eg. foods and other perishables. If there is also a move to repair rather than replace, what will this do to energy consumption? There is an overview of China and energy here: and I would be interested to hear from anyone with more information.

There is one final assumption - that the world economy will continue to grow. Just because it has done during our lifetimes, does not make economic growth inevitable. If we have a world recession, there is a whole different scenario, but shhhhh, don't say anything because if you do, it might happen.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Open Coffee BBQ

Lots of people turned up to the BBQ at Lough Derg from all over the country, from wedding planners to deep techies to hot poster sellers (more later).

I did a talk on the opportunities for the IT sector caused by energy problems. (I belive in calling a problem a problem and not an issue!). Here is an abbreviated version:

The industry most used to change, who welcome change as an opportunity for innovation and who expect to get new businesses and new products to market at short notice is, in my opinion, the IT sector. So maybe IT people are the ones to embrace the changes caused by a changing energy landscape and to benefit by it.

A bit about me.

The problem is the gap between increasing demand and declining supply of fossil-fuels.

Our 20th century economy was built on the assumption of cheap and available energy, in particular oil and globalisation has been possible because of cheap transport costs. If energy prices continue to increase then what changes will that mean for the way we live and work?

Current thinking is around how to increase supply to meet demand, but doing something about demand is actually much easier and cheaper. Demand is made up of the energy we need plus the energy we want plus the energy we waste. I have been saying for some time that we waste at least 50% of the energy we use but am open to challenge! Wasted energy is any energy used that does not give us a direct benefit, so it includes burning petrol at traffic lights as well as leaving the lights on in an empty room

So what kind of changes lie ahead as demand pushes against supply?
Smart grids, smart meters and demand response will mean the price of electricity will vary with the cost of supply. On windy days the price is cheaper than when all the electricty is supplied by gas and peat. Electricity suppliers will use price to manage demand and reduce peaks and fill troughs. This will make more efficient use of generation plant.

I don't believe in the hydrogen economy (see previous blog posts). Electricity seems a much better carrier of energy for which we already have the basic infrastructure. We are already replacing oil with electricity when we purchase ground source heat pumps and electric cars are already to be seen on the roads.

In the forseeable, future energy efficiency will be a given. This is not to say that we will be constantly trying to save energy. If we have our own wind turbine or solar panel, then that energy is effectively free to use, when it is available. On windy summer nights, the grid will be tring to offload excess wind so it will be very cheap.

As transport prices increase, some aspects of globalisation will be unsustainable. Deglobalisation is already happening in the US where it is cheaper to carry out some work in the US than move goods round the world. At the same time, work that does not involve 'stuff' can be increasingly by done anywhere.

Just in time is ubiquitous so we rarely consider alternatives. Chemist shops in Dublin have two deliveries a day and people shop for food every 2 to 3 days because of the short shelf life of food and lack of storage space in the kitchen. As the price of transport goes up, it will become more economical is some cases, to store more and have fewer, larger deliveries, which in turn effects the transport fleet...

And while we have never had a world recession, doesn't mean we can't.

So what are the opportunities?

Moving stuff and people around the place has been very cheap for a long time. Imagine that before travelling up to the BBQ we could checkout and find that by picking up a package in Dunmanway and dropping it off in Mallow I could save €8 on my journey. For a few extra minutes, I'd do that.

How about a taxi/bus type service where you tell a system where you need to be and when, and each day the system does a timetable that devises the most efficient routes and sends an appropriate sized vehicle to cover that route. A job no human could do, but perfect for a computer.

FabLabs put small fabrication into the hands of everyone. We can all become inventors and fixers. I want one! More here.

Demand response allows the grid controllers to not only manage supply to manage demand. They have two controls. One is to increase price when they want to decrease demand, the other is to have control of equipment, which by prior agreement, they can shut down at time of high demand. Here is more about how the US have implemented Demand Response and Jerry Sweeney who wants to make it happen here.
Publish Post
Those are only a few ideas - Think about all the things that can be done under the heading "Taking the Hassle out of Energy Efficiency".

The Hot Posters? Stand next to an ordinary poster only you realise it is giving off heat! They do this by giving off infra-red light. Handy for the winter when you want to watch TV in a cold room - sit by a pic of your favorite politician (hot air). In the bus shelter, everyone is huddled around the poster for whisky. Build into the jackets for farmers and horsey people out in the wind, rain and mud all winter. In my wellies and gloves. Under my feet when sitting at the computer in the winter......

MPG to litres per 100 km

Thanks to PEGE for providing a conversion calculator. I calculated some typical values to give a feel:

20mpg -> 12 l/100km
30mgp ->8 l/100km
40mpg -> 6 l/100mk
50mpg -> 5 l/100km
60mpg ->4 l/100km
100mpg ->2 l/100km

Thursday, July 10, 2008

More on the Electric Vehicle Theme

Two items today on this theme:

A great article at this new blog Next Generation of Energy Ideas on electric cars and how the future is going to be hybrid electric plugins and the commenters make some good points, including the idea of utility companies owning the batteries and leasing them to car owners, and the idea of standardising on batteries to we can hot swap them.

An taking the opposite view, Boone Pickens youtube video on how the US can replace the power stations that are using imported natural gas with windmills and use the natural gas in cars instead (because cars must run on liquid fuels).  I think he needs to consider the big picture of electricity supply and the need to balance wind with quick start (gas) fueled power stations and also the electric car concept.  But nevertheless, great to see a businessman with a vision and sharing it with us. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Mad Dog continues winning ways at Cork

Usually there is never a photographer when you want one (when you win) but plenty of shots of you looking down, knocking fences, generally you and the horse not at your best. But I like this pic of me and Mad Dog on the way to winning the Ladies 1.10, in the mud, at Cork Show. Even better, Ivor was second and Katy fourth, so all three horses now qualified for the final at Banteer! Another job done.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Future Cities and more Hydrogen

Watched a fun presentation on the kinds of technology we might find in a future city, from folding cars to desalination plant. Part of the infrastructure was algae producing hydrogen which was sent down pipelines to supply transport vehicles, cooling cables on the way. I have the feeling, and I may well be wrong, that we assuming hydrogen will be part of the future mix and are looking for solutions.

Supposing the best use of algae was to create hydrogen, would it not be more energy efficient to convert directly to electricity and put the electricity on the grid than creating an additional infrastructure for hydrogen, not to mention more complex engines? I would be very interested to see the capital costs and running costs of hydrogen vs. electric cars. Given that hydrogen cars are electric cars with the addition of a fuel cell and hydrogen storage, it must be considerably more?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Do your bit - Thanks Greenav

Hydrogen vs. Electric Cars

It seems to me the "Hydrogen Economy" has gone a bit quiet and I wonder if that's because people have been doing some sums. Assume you start with 100kWh of wind power and you can either use that to create hydrogen for your hydrogen car or put into a battery for your electric car. Which is more efficient?

This diagram from Ulf Bossel of the Lucerne Fuel Cell Forum (see their reports). Because of the number of processes involved in converting electricity to hydrogen, compressing and transporting it and then converting it back to electricity, the process cannot beat the simplicity of the battery approach, even with significant improvement. That's not to say battery power for cars is without problems (weight, environmental) or that hydrogen doesn't have a big advantage (you can recharge in 5 mins). But to me the sums do not add up, especially when the additional infrastructure cost of getting hydrogen to filling stations is added.

Interestingly, reviewing other blogs comparing hydrogen with electric, many are keen to point out how electric cars are not really green because they are charged using electricity from coal etc. They don't seem to question where the hydrogen comes from though.

Hear a podcast by Ulf given to The Watt here:

Electric vs. Combustion Engine Efficiency

Today I'm trying to get to grips with future vehicles and wade through all the bad information out there. So starting with Electric cars vs. petrol/diesel. The combustion engine car is inherently inefficient, mainly because of the heat losses of the combustion process, but also losses through the drivetrain and additional load such as air conditioning. Out of town, efficiency improves with 20% reaching the types.

The overall efficiency of the electric car depends most signficantly on the source of electricity. If you electric car is recharged from your own windmill, the efficiency can be as much as 80%, but if power station losses and grid losses are also included that may drop to as much as 28%. Still better than the petrol car though.

Electric-Powered GM EV1Gasoline-Powered Acura .2TL

Start with1 million BTUsStart with>1 million BTUs
Energy left after generation (39% efficiency)390,000 BTUsEnergy left after refining (92% efficiency)920,000 BTUs
Energy left after charging losses (88% efficiency)>343,000 BTUsEnergy left after transport (95% efficiency)874,000 BTUs
BTUs per kilowatt-hour3412 BTUsBTUs per gallon of gasoline115,400 BTUs
Electricity available100.6 kWhrGallons available7.6 gallons
Energy efficiency0.19 kWhr/mileFuel economy>24 mpg
Miles per million BTUs529.5 milesMiles per million BTUs182.5 miles
Equivalent mpg69 mpgEquivalent mpg24 mpg

From a bit out of date

This would suggest, even with current technology, that you are greener to buy an electric car and charge it off the grid then drive an equivalent petrol car.

Here is a more entertaining comparison of electric vs. petrol. Mythbusters converted a petrol go-kart to electric and it performed almost as well as the petrol one, which considering it was nearly twice as heavy with the batteries, wasn't bad going.

Mad Idea - Electric Vehicle Rally in Cork?

Quentin Gargan has for some time had an electric van, my cousin Alexander Skeaping in London has G-WIZ and Mike Hobbs in Dunmanway is getting an electric motorbike. So how about have an electric vehicle rally in Cork during Mobility Week (used to be car free day) in Cork in September? Not sure how many days it would take for my cousin to get from London, but it would be great to show people that electric cars are here and in use. Anyone know anyone with an electric vehicle who might want to join in the fun?