For some time now I have been worried about the present batch of “Alternative Energies”, their biggest problems are to do with efficiency and their ability to deliver energy when it is needed rather than just when it is available. Great savings can be made in energy efficiency in order to reduce our need for energy but fundamentally in order to achieve a low-carbon existence we need ways to make “Alternative Energies” work for us, and by “Alternative Energies” I mean taking advantage of natural sustainable sources of energy such as wind, wave and solar power. Making best use of these sources is even more important since the German Government decided to shut down all of it’s nuclear power generation earlier than planned, because now European fuel prices have to rise dramatically because Germany will now be vastly more dependent on Fossil Fuels until they can fill the gap with viable alternatives.

Currently the way we store energy if there is an excess in the grid is to convert the excess electricity into potential or kinetic energy until it is needed again later. There are many water storage facilities in the UK which pump water up-hill to large reservoirs in a technique called “Pumped Storage Hydroelectricity“. By pumping the water up-hill when you have excess energy you can then let it come back down again and recovery the energy with hydroelectric turbines. Each time you do something like this you waste some of the energy because of energy conversion inefficiencies.

Wind energy is interesting, when the wind blows we get a fair amount of energy returned by the gigantic wind turbine. The most you can ever capture from a wind turbine is 59% of the available wind energy passing through, this is a fact of physics proved by Albert Betz in 1919. However that is the upper limit, in reality there is conversion from kinetic energy (the motion of the wind) to electrical energy and such conversions always result in a loss of efficiency in gears, dynamos and power couplings. Because this energy is available “When The Wind Blows” and at no other time there have been issues where the National Grid has had to shut down turbines because they weren’t needed and this is a great waste of their potential.

Solar energy is another area of great interest to many people and I struggle to get excited about what should be a great source of energy because everyone gets excited about Photovoltaic (PV) energy which uses chemically doped materials to directly convert sunlight into electrical current. The reason I struggle to get excited is that PV isn’t very efficient, typically high quality solar panels are about 14-17% efficient and that really isn’t very much. Also solar PV cells need various exotic chemicals in their production of which only a portion is recycled and they aren’t exactly “low carbon” in their transport around the world. Solar energy is logically only available during the hours of sunlight and again, logically, is subject to the intensity of the sun in the location.

In an “Off Grid” environment, where a home owner has no access to mains electricity from the grid, it is quite common to store energy in batteries so that the peak energy availability can be disbursed over a longer period. Not everyone has access to a source of large quantities of water and a reservoir pond (or two) to store it in. Batteries are great for our mobile phones, they store energy in chemical form for good periods of time and release it on demand. Some batteries can release their energy quickly or some can release it slowly over long periods of time. But fundamentally batteries are flawed because they depend on harsh chemical processes which break down the components over time and can result in failure of the cell. Also you can only really discharge a deep cycle battery to 70-80% before you start causing premature damage to the battery cell, thus you need to be careful with your management of supply and demand.

Some time ago I started to wonder: why don’t we store more energy as directly coupled kinetic or potential mechanical energy? Wind farms, for example, I wondered if it wouldn’t be a good idea to install giant clock springs under them (or in their stems) so that we could regulate the release of all of that good mechanical energy. Now, giant clock springs sound silly at first, but actually many companies use kinetic energy storage as a power backup medium. In computer data centres, when you have a power failure it takes time to start the local on-site diesel generators and you need something to keep all the equipment going until the generator is up to speed. Some companies use giant banks of batteries which they carefully maintain and monitor, but I have seen a few UPS failures and they get rather messy and expensive. Plus batteries can release hydrogen gas which could cause harm to operatives working in the UPS battery room. The alternative that some companies really do use is to use a motor to spin a giant “fly-wheel” on a very efficient bearing, when the power fails that mass still has a great deal of momentum, and as the motor is no longer supplying force to keep it spinning it can be used as a generator to take that kinetic energy and turn it back into electricity. There can be enough energy in the momentum of a large enough mass to keep a data centre alive until the generator is ready to take the strain. This spinning mass technique however somewhat depends on the problem that you can’t store such kinetic energy for long periods, the friction of the bearings causes momentum to be lost over time and affects efficiency but it is great for short-term non-toxic energy storage. Some buses around the world are now using spinning masses as a means of kinetic energy recovery in breaking and they can then use that energy to help move the bus away from the stop before the engine takes over again, a nice and clean “Start-Stop” technique.

This application in buses and the idea of the hydroelectric storage leads me to another angle. The disadvantage of water as an energy store is partly because it can’t be compressed, it takes up a great deal of space and the disadvantage of kinetic energy is that the spinning mass can’t spin forever. Well, what about storing energy in a static way, under compression which can be quickly released on demand. This leads us neatly to: Compressed Air Energy Storage. Now of course I don’t declare to be the first to propose such an idea, because it is already in industrial use around the world to a limited degree. But what I would like to do is highlight the concept because it deserves more attention and also because I think it might have some interesting applications as a battery replacement technology.

In an off-grid situation we could see a tank being placed in an out-building which has a store of highly compressed air, this is generated through wind, solar or other inconsistent energy supply. In addition I think that some kind of Sterling Engine arrangement could supply the mechanical work for solar energy without needing to waste energy on conversion to and from electricity just to achieve compression. What about automotive situations? Many companies are installing very expensive and potentially unreliable batteries in cars, what about compressed air tanks which could be used as a kind of compressed air transmission instead of a gearbox? Directly drive the gears with the compressed air perhaps? Just put a 600CC compressor in and regenerative breaking, should have a snappy little number!

Today I saw on Facebook a campaign for “European Revolution” on 29th May 2011 seemingly started by some Greeks, I saw this and thought how stupid this is. Thus here is my response, I thought about posting it on their wall but realised they would probably just divert some of their negative energies at me causing me grief, but I trust it is safer to put it on a website that almost no one reads (mine):

Clearly a group of people with too much time on your hands. The power for real change isn’t in protesting, it is in acting in a positive way: it is about producing, it is about helping your country to recover. You are the government, the people have the power already. You blame the economic and political forces? What have you been doing that lets these forces control your lives? The answer is: Nothing. Politics is of the people, you and your families vote for the politicians. If there is corruption then you let it happen by not paying enough attention to your representatives. If the economic forces have controlled your life then you have forgotten that by earning money you, as the people, are in control. The way you spend your money determines the fate of the economy and the nation. You might think that your money is less important than the money of big business but then you are underselling your own importance. If you campaign for a positive change in spending, and if you are in the right, then you *can* make a difference.

 

Of course some will attack me for saying this, but I have seen what these protests achieve: Nothing. Because they are nothing but a forum for violence by anarchists who want to feel ‘something’ in their lives through this violence.

The Greek people in particular need to take responsibility for their national situation.  You are not victims, you are complicit in the situation.

 

I’ve been following the growth of interest in Thorium as a source of energy, it seems to me to be one of the best ways of producing large quantities of energy in a consistent way with a balanced ecological impact. Baroness Worthington was Raised to the House of Lords in February 2011 and as an ecological campaigner she brings something interesting to the mix. She made her maiden speech in the House recently and having seen it I thought I should send her a message sharing my views. Don’t know how it will be received by her (I used http://www.writetothem.com to do it) and if she will accept what I have to say, but without input Politicians can’t be representing the people. Bellow is my correspondence for your consideration and yes I am terrible at finishing correspondence:

Continue reading “Letter to Baroness Worthington”

So, recently I have, on two occasions ended up discussing the pro’s and con’s of different power generation systems. I thought it might be helpful to capture some of the arguments here and have a place where follow-ups could be noted. Some of the balance of the argument depends on geography, some on natural resources and sustainability over the long-term. I might have made some mistakes, so I would appreciate any input.

Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuel thus not long-term sustainable, they are created from ancient organic materials which have been compressed and baked until they turn into a combustable solid, liquid or gas. It takes millions of years to produce these materials and they cannot be replaced in the lifetime of our civilisation. Continous supply of energy as long as it is needed and possible to reduce output to match demand.

1) Natural Gas Fired

Western European countries Gas fields are increasingly depleated. Cleaner burning than many other fossil fuels and relatively efficient conversion to electricity. Scales from domestic generator to power-station with good efficiency.

2) Coal Fired

Mining coal is either a difficult and dangerous operation under ground, or it can be strip mined which leaves significant scaring on the landscape. Burning coal is relatively dirty.

3) Oil Fired

Difficult and dangerous extraction as shown by the Gulf of Mexico. Quite dirty generation.

Atomic / Nuclear

Typically continous supply which is quite reliable to meet demand, but may also be wasteful if the energy is not needed off-peak.

1) Uranium Fast Breeder Reactor

Principles designed over 50 years ago for a different age, sponsored by government because the by-product is weapons grade radioactive isotopes. Easy to generate large ammounts of electricity. Expensive plant design, long-term safety implications and difficult end-of-life management for the facility. Financially difficult to justify because of the end-of-life implications but with subsidies possibly one of the most powerful continous supply generators.

2) Thorium Molten Salt Reactor

Thorium is much more efficient to extract than Uranium and relatively safe to handle. When embedded in molten halide salts then it can easily be deactivated in the case of difficulties. The isotopes it produces have a fairly safe half-life and are not very radioactive. Also because the radioactive material is contained in a liquid it cannot suffer from physical stressing like a solid fuel.

Environmental Power

1) Wind turbines

Subject to mechanical stresses, so requires difficult maintenance. However can be constructed from sustainable materials and can be recycled. Heavy bases need to be constructed with concrete but can be reused. Not dependable and predictable, cannot be adjusted to meet a growth in demand. Subject to the availability of heavy winds, with no wind there is no power generated and has to be shut down in excessive wind. Possible environmental impact to wildlife, particularly birds, and some visual/noise impact. Good energy transfer from the mechanical wind to electricity.

2) Photovoltaic

Produced from a silicon chemical substrate, environmental impact in production and risk of pollution. Poor efficiency compared to carbon impact of manufacturing and transport. Power output is subject to the availability of good levels of sun.

3) Solar-thermal-electric

By focusing the sun on a boiler or Sterling generator a clean and sustainable electricity is generated. Subject to sun availability and still difficult to transfer but with potentially less polution in manufacturing than alternatives.

4) Geo-thermal

Using the heat of the earth to produce steam and generate electricity. Dependable source of energy, subject to regional effectiveness where pockets of hot earth are available for use.

5) Tidal/wave energy

Use of the power of the sea to turn generators. This is a very powerful and clean form of energy, in areas like the British Isles a fairly consistent output can be given. Probable environmental impacts on fishing and wildlife. There is enough sea energy on the west coast of Ireland to power the entire British Isles demands for energy.

6) Hydroelectric

Requires a massive geo-engineering effort involving large ammounts of concrete which has a highly polluting production. However once constructed it can have a long lifespan of clean production.

Bio Fuels

Biofuels are sources which can be burnt to release their energy which was usually gathered through the growing of plant materials. The carbon released is almost as much as that which was consumed in the growth. However this is at the sacrifice of land which can be used for growing food, with world food shortages it is a shame to be burning crops for energy.

Despite not being Greek myself I have very personal connections and commitments there and I was recently asked what I would do to ease the situation further (because Germany is not happy with the proposals so far). Of course I have no real influence on Greek politics but were I to be able to dictate here are my views. Warning, this is the brutal truth as I see it, it doesn’t mean I don’t like Greece but this is what I see as stopping Greece from being great again.

Personally I feel that the Greek people have let themselves get into trouble because of the way they conduct their politics. I am told that in the main the politicians are corrupt on a grand scale but as long as they do nothing that overtly and obviously affects the daily lives of the population the people won’t do anything. The people of Greece value individual liberties even if that is at the sacrifice of the common good and for all their protestations as to having been the originators of democracy they have forgotten that the cost of democracy is collective responsibility.

The unions and the people will strike because they are getting affected by the obviously unpopular cutbacks. The most notable issue is the fact that the public sector is massively bloated with probably 20-30% of people who are completely superfluous. In addition they spend huge amounts on academic research but believe that co-operating with business to commercialise efforts would taint academia. It seems that half the café workers in Greece seem to have a post-graduate degree and most of the workers seem to be regularly practising some form of tax evasion.

I love Greece but it just needs to wake up to a little self-sacrifice and the people need to take some responsibility (not just the politicians). My interim measures would be:

  • Tell every government department to cut at least 1 in 4 jobs over the next two to four years. At the same time offer amnesty to non-permanent staff and let departments decide who they actually need (many good staff are on short-term contracts many lazy people have permanent contracts).
  • Cap redundancy payments to limit the expense and begin a separate “back to work” scheme for those who are made redundant by the cuts.
  • Don’t pay those who go on strike and let them face the responsibility of not going to work (hold firm).
  • Ask politicians (local and national) to take half-pay for the next year and/or audit all expenses for the past two years.
  • Force all academic institutions to fund part of their budget each year from external (non-academic) activities or cut their budgets proportionally. Starting at 5% and adding 5% each year until 20-25%.
  • Modernise the power generation system to avoid dependency on ancient dirty/inefficient power stations.
  • Reduce bureaucracy and paperwork by 30%.
  • Cancel all non-maintenance spending on national defence (Reduce defence spending to <=3% GDP?). (Turkey isn’t really going to invade any more and they don’t need new submarines).

Just my observations over the past five years of being involved with Greece. Perhaps I am too harsh, but it is tough love. Greece lords itself for being one of the greatest countries in the history of the world, but that is history. The Greeks must look forward with a unified vision to what they want to be and have the ambition to execute that without sacrificing the things that already make Greece great (family, social life, community spirit).

Just my two Euro-cents.

Anyone who is claiming that the Royal family isn’t a draw for tourists has clearly not spent enough time out of the UK nor actually spoken to many tourists. Perhaps the 2.9 million people who, in 2008, visited the sites managed by HRP were just there for the architecture alone? I spend more time with international people than with British because of my work (unrelated to tourism or royalty) and I can testify that the royals are significant figures internationally.

Continue reading “Why be a Republic?”

A student I once worked with (David Vargas Racero) recently posted the online status:

“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

To which my response was:

“Intelligence in the 21st Century is not knowledge itself, but the ability to know how to obtain knowledge at short notice. Where once it was said ‘Knowledge is Power’ the less catchy phrase should now be ‘Navigation of knowledge is power’.”

My attempt at philosophy for today.

    My brother write a blog entry yesterday about home networking and powerline technology. And without knowing, he’s actually commenting on a subject dear to my professional heart.

    My company produces very nice DRT (digital television recorder / PVR) products, some of the best in the industry (so the man from Sony tells me). We are really trying to lead the industry when it comes to this product range and my job is to help influence that.  It is my feeling, and that of many others, that there will be a consumer device, probably in the lounge, probably grown out of a DTR product and probably it will extend it’s reach well beyond the lounge. My first hope is to secure support for DLNA, this technology makes it easy for network connected devices to share resources or control each other. From a media point of view this means that content can be streamed from one device to another without complex user intervention.

    Power line technology is a lovely idea, unfortunately from a manufacturers perspective to integrate it into a product is very expensive. The cost of the module is easily more than the cost of an HD decoder chipset. This means that I struggle to justify putting it into a product when I know that the majority of consumers will never actually use the technology. I am also a bit dubious about putting signals over wires that weren’t designed to handle them, the mains in the UK is about 240V at 50Hz, the cable is designed for that and works well enough. But when you start putting complex noise signals at wide bandwidth over them you are going to have some effect at some point. Powerline delivered broadband already has a huge objection from the HAM radio groups and radio astronomy groups, thousands of low cost PLT home devices can’t be much better (even if they are lower power).

    We are however striving to add ethernet ports to as many products as possible and we are working on some decent software to exploit it to the full. I do conceed however using these plug adaptors could be an easy way to avoid the fact that wireless never delivers even close to it’s stated bandwidths and most consumers don’t want to rewire their house for Cat-5e/6. Although remember that current electrical installation requirements in the UK now often require a professional electrician to do the install otherwise you can’t sell your house.

New broadband provider… a new year. Excellent:

Uptime: 0 days, 4:11:09
Modulation: G.992.5 Annex A
Bandwidth (Up/Down) [kbps/kbps]: 1,291 / 7,264
   
Output Power (Up/Down) [dBm]: 12.0 / 18.0
Line Attenuation (Up/Down) [dB]: 21.5 / 39.5
SN Margin (Up/Down) [dB]: 7.0 / 6.5

 Ah, heck, it might not be 24Mb but its enough for me.

 

 So, I confess my father is a Baron, not a feudal type Baron or the enemy of Dangermouse, but a "Baron of the Cinque Ports". There were traditional rights and I wonder how many of these still apply because no one actually revoked them.

Continue reading “Barons and rights”