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Yes it's Friday again already, Friday, 28 September. This is the Sustainable Futures Report and I'm Anthony Day.
Welcome to all my listeners, welcome to all my patrons and a special welcome to the latest patron, Tom de Simone. Thanks Tom! Tom popped across to patreon.com/SFR and signed up to make a monthly contribution towards my costs in hosting this podcast. Your unique enamel Sustainable Futures Report badge is in the post. A badge like that could be yours too.
How smart is your smart meter?
How smart is your smart meter? This week I'll tell you about my PhD research into smart meters and why I’m not doing it any more. I did learn quite a lot as I shall explain later. OPEC tells us that they expect oil production to rise dramatically in the next five years, so if that's true I presume we can kiss goodbye to the Paris agreement. Why not avoid oil and buy an electric car? We ordered one last week. Unlike other electric car owners we won't be taking it to the Middle East. Why would we? Listen on and you’ll find out. The answer to heating British homes and indeed homes in other countries could lie in the coal mines. But it has nothing to do with coal. First of all though, let's talk about sustainability and survival. Specifically about the survival of food plants on earth.
Deep inside a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, lies the Global Seed Vault. Well above the Arctic Circle, it’s a long-term seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time — and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters. The Seed Vault represents the world’s largest collection of crop diversity. There are nearly 2,000 gene banks or seed banks across the world, but the Svalbard facility is the largest and designed to be the most secure. Apart from everything else, it is so cold there that everything can remain frozen without the need for energy. The vault is 100 m within the mountainside in an area which is geologically stable and well above sea level even if sea levels rise significantly. If there is an international disaster: for example a disease which wipes out a particular crop across the world, there will always be seeds in the vaults to allow crops to be replanted. The other purpose of this collection is to preserve plant diversity when agribusiness is focusing on crops of fewer and fewer varieties.
Even in this Arctic location climate change makes its presence felt and ABC news reports that the permafrost is weakening and because more rain is falling than previously, water is leaking into the access tunnel. The Norwegian government is spending $17 million on repairs.
"The seeds in the vault have never, ever been at any kind of threat," said Maria Haga, executive director of the global Crop Trust, one of three organisations that manage the vault.
"We've had a bit of water in the tunnel leading into the rooms where we've had the seeds, but far away from the seeds."
Norwegian Polar Institute international director Kim Holmen said the pace of climate change in the Arctic was dramatic.
"We are seeing temperatures going up, the winter time temperatures tremendously. We see less ice on the ocean, no ice at all on the fjords when there should be," he said.
"We see snow melting earlier in the spring, glaciers thinning, eco-systems changing. "If you doubt that climate is changing, please visit the Arctic.
"It is changing very much here, consistently warming. The only explanation that my scientific understanding can find today is that it is due to human-induced change of the atmosphere."
World Oil Outlook 2040
Didn't I read somewhere that burning fossil fuels leads to emissions which cause global warming and climate change? Fossil fuels like oil? It's a bit worrying then to read a headline in The Guardian: “OPEC predicts massive rise in oil production over next five years”. They are referring to the latest report from OPEC, (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), the World Oil Outlook 2040.
What the report actually says is that demand for oil is expected to rise to 104.5 mb/d by 2023, which is an average growth of 1.2% per annum and the growth rate is declining. By 2040, 22 years from now, demand is expected to rise slowly to 111.7 mb/d. Hardly a massive rise over 5 years, but the total rise over the 23 years from 2017 runs to 14.9%. Much of this increase is put down to the growth in transport, and while OPEC believes that electric vehicles will affect the demand for oil they do not expect EVs to account for more than 13% of the global vehicle fleet by 2040.
Any increase in oil use is worrying when the Paris Agreement calls for dramatic emissions reductions by 2050. Increases can only be held back if governments take action, and simply depressing demand by taxes or regulations will be politically unacceptable to say the least. We need leadership to promote alternative fuels and alternative transport models, but for the moment politicians on both sides of the Atlantic seem to be consumed by other things, and to consider that environmental issues are low priority.
Talking of alternative transport, we ordered an electric car last week. It won’t come until December and I’ll tell you all about it then.
This week City AM reported that car-sharing service Turo, which matches renters with car owners, hopes to sign up many of the UK's 30m cars after it launched to the general market on Tuesday. Turo is already established in the US where owners can list their cars and receive 75% of the fees charged for each journey. Turo takes care of the insurance and responsibility for any damage and says it pre-vets all renters. It’s a great way to make money out of an asset which may be essential but sits idle for most of the time. Initially Turo UK will concentrate on London (quelle surprise!) but aims to expand across the country. I was going to sign my car up until I found they wouldn’t list anything over 10 years old. My Prius will be 13 next month. Even more economical than ever.
Go East, EV Driver
If you like electric cars maybe you should sign up for the Global EV Road Trip in the UAE and Oman in January next year. The organisers say:
“During previous events we have had Tesla, the Chevrolet Bolt EV [that’s the Opel Ampera-e in Europe] and Renault Zoe. Every year we bring on new models that are available in the market and we aim to have as many as possible. You will have a dedicated car which becomes your car for the road trip. You will mainly drive this car however you will have many test drive opportunities of all the other cars.
Regarding cars preferences, it's first come first served. Book your seat now so that you can select which car you'd like!”
The full trip costs just under £2,000, with your flights on top. I can’t help thinking that the emissions from the flights alone will probably wipe out the savings from any electric car you might have at home. Don’t let me stand in your way. Just go to https://www.evrtmiddleeast.com And do send us a postcard.
Energy from No Coal
Energy, of course, is not just about electricity. In 2015 the total primary energy demand in the UK was 202.5 mtoe and some 29% of this was used for space heating. Almost all of that was generated directly or indirectly from fossil fuels. In fact 50% of all gas used in the UK is used for heating, and since 2004 we have been net gas importers.
Last week I was at an event in Leeds where I met Professor Jon Guylas of Durham University. He explained to me how together with Assistant Professor Charlotte Adams and team he was working on the potential of extracting heat from geothermal resources. In theory geothermal energy is available to everyone, because wherever you are in the world if you drill into the earth’s crust the further you go the hotter it gets. Getting the heat out requires a fluid to carry it. Water is ideal. One source of warm water is flooded coal mines, of which there are many in the UK. Coal mines tend to be near communities, the former mining communities, so the heat can be easily transferred into district heating systems. Of course the water in coal mines is not typically boiling hot, in fact it’s only about 14-16℃, but a heat pump can raise the temperature to useful levels.
If I were writing this on a page I would now put in a side panel to explain what district heating and heat pumps are, and you can ignore this if you know already. However I can’t do this in a podcast so bear with me while I remind those who may have forgotten.
District heating is very common in the US, in Europe and particularly in Eastern Europe and Russia. Very hot water mains are laid in the streets and spurs led off to each property. In almost every UK house there is an individual boiler but every house in a district heating scheme has a heat exchanger, (like one radiator inside another), where the very hot water heats water for domestic taps, showers and radiators. I read somewhere that the system worked so well in the former Soviet Union that the only way to control the heat in mid-winter was to open the windows. I understand that control systems have since been improved and they are now using quite a lot less energy.
A heat pump works like a fridge. It extracts heat and pumps it out via a radiator. Put your hand down the back of your fridge if you don’t believe me. A heat pump could power a district heating system by extracting heat from a flooded mine. Typical efficiency yields 4:1. In other words, every kWh of energy put into running the pump yields 4kWh of heat.
On the blog there’s a link to an article by the Durham team explaining all about this. They also published an article: “Keeping warm: a review of deep geothermal potential of the UK”, which appeared in the Proceedings of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers Part A, Journal of Power and Energy.
Here’s a quotation from the abstract:
“The consequences of developing a substantial part of the UK’s geothermal resource are profound. The baseload heating that could be supplied from low enthalpy geothermal energy would cause a dramatic fall in the UK’s emissions of greenhouse gases, reduce the need for separate energy storage required by the intermittent renewables (wind and solar) and underpin a significant position of the nation’s energy security for the foreseeable future, so lessening the UK’s dependence on imported oil and gas. Investment in indigenous energy supplies would also mean retention of wealth in the UK.”
I will monitor this important story and keep you informed of developments.
How Smart is your smart meter? Earlier this year I started researching for a PhD at the Leeds Sustainability Institute of Leeds Beckett University. I’ve subsequently withdrawn from the course, for reasons explained later, but in the relatively short time that I spent on this assignment I did find out quite a lot about smart meters.
The UK has a plan to install 53 million smart meters into domestic and commercial premises by the end of 2020. Some 13 million are now in place, so the chances of completion on time are small. A smart metering system consists of an electricity meter, a gas meter, a communications hub and a visual display. The communications hub sets up a wireless network allowing it to communicate with the gas and electricity meters. It uses separate wireless communications to contact the electricity supply network. The visual display shows near real-time consumption of gas and electricity, either separately or combined. This can be shown as kWh, financial cost or carbon emissions created, for now, today, this week, this month or this year. The user can set up a budget for comparison and the display will show green, amber or red symbols depending on how much energy is being used.
There are two principal benefits claimed for smart meters. The first is that consumers will change their behaviour in response to information from the data displayed. For example, if red lights show it is expected that they will reduce consumption. In other markets, though not widely in the UK at present, there are variable tariffs for different times of day. Consumption at times of peak demand will be more expensive - more red lights - so consumers will be encouraged to switch things off. This helps generators to balance the national load. If consumers do reduce consumption at peak times then generators can reduce the number of expensive power stations idling for hours on standby just to meet a peak which may last only minutes. At the moment, however, there is scant evidence that consumers do cut their consumption when made aware of how much they are using. An exception to this was shown by a study of users of prepaid meters. Such people are used to making every penny count.
The second benefit is to both the energy companies and the consumer. By using the meters to monitor consumption remotely there is no need, or cost, to send someone to the property to read the meter. This means an end to estimated bills and fewer calls to customer service to dispute them. Consumers receive their bills promptly and accurately and are no longer surprised by massive estimated bills issued because the meter reader could not get access.
So far so good.
The vast majority of the 13m meters installed so far are called SMETS1. A version called SMETS2 is just starting to roll out, but at this stage they number only in the hundreds. The British government urges consumers to request a smart meter and take back control of energy costs. It also urges consumers to seek the best deal and switch from supplier to supplier. Unfortunately if a consumer has a SMETS1 meter and switches suppliers the meter goes dumb. It cannot send data to the new supplier, which now has to send someone round to read the meter again. The visual display no longer knows what tariff applies so can no longer show the cost of energy or accept a budget. Consumption per day, per week, per month or per year only goes back as far as the date of the switch. This is not a problem with SMETS2 meters and there are plans to upgrade the software on the SMETS1 meters to solve the switching problem, but no date is yet known.
Consumers in the UK do not have to accept smart meters: they have the right to refuse. This is probably a good idea, given what happened in the Netherlands. The Dutch government made smart meters compulsory, but the Dutch Committee for the Protection of Personal Data advised that this was likely to conflict with privacy laws and the Consumers’ Association published a report that the rollout of the meters could infringe the European Convention on Human Rights. There was criticism of the specification of the meters from the Dutch Applied Research Institute and the whole issue became a matter of hot public debate. The government was forced to accept an amendment to the legislation allowing citizens the right to refuse.
There is opposition to smart meters for many reasons. Concerns include that marketing organisations could use the data to profile and target consumers or that within a household one individual could closely monitor the activities of others. Consumers have also claimed that burglars in possession of the data could identify unoccupied properties, stalkers could track their victims, law enforcement agencies could detect illegal activities or validate alibis (“I was at home all evening”), and the information could even be used in custody battles or landlord-tenant disputes.
How realistic this actually is, is open to question. The meters do not send data to the central system in real time; it is typically stored and uploaded once per day. UK consumers can request that it is uploaded only once per month. Data protection rules prohibit the use of the data for any reasons apart from billing and management of the power infrastructure. If criminals wanted to access real-time data from a meter to determine whether or not a property was occupied they would have to hack directly into the smart meter and persuade it to release information which they would then have to interpret. Sounds difficult to me.
There are pressure groups determined to stop smart meters, like http://stopsmartmeters.org.uk. They are concerned about dangers from radiation and in the US utility companies have been hit with multi-million dollar class action lawsuits from people who have had the meters installed in their homes and claim that they are damaging their health. Others are concerned about the technical aspects of the meters and whether they are influenced by the power factor (technical term, you’ll have to google it) and therefore over-record and overcharge.
There is also a worrying report that two senior officials in regulator Ofgem, the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, raised concerns about problems including the smart meter project and were threatened with imprisonment. They allege they were bullied, treated unfairly and sidelined to such an extent they felt compelled to bring their grievances to an employment tribunal.
They say they were told they would not be allowed to reveal to the tribunal, or anyone else, the concerns they had.
One said, “Specifically I was told that if I told the truth, my career with Ofgem would be finished.”
All is clearly not well with the smart meter roll-out. If I can find out more I’ll keep you posted.
So why did I give up the PhD? I wanted to study why climate change deniers were getting more attention from policymakers than scientists with verified research. It was pointed out to me that this was not an appropriate study for a PhD and in any case would be impossible to verify. It became clear that I had misunderstood what a PhD is about. It's a training in academic research which happens to focus on a very small area in very great depth. The area I eventually chose was the issue of smart metering. I've come to the conclusion that I didn't want to spend a further five years studying this because my interests are so much wider. I'm grateful to my supervisory team at Leeds Beckett University who educated me about the scope and purpose of the PhD, introduced me to academic rigour, and explained about plagiarism and research ethics. I've learnt that one must never have an opinion, only facts which are derived either from the peer reviewed research of others or from one's own research. Actually there is one opinion that you're allowed, which is that further research may be necessary in this field.
So that’s it.
Yes, that’s it for another week. I must make clear that all the stories in the Sustainable Futures Report have certainly been assembled without academic rigour. The message then, as seen on many investment self-help sites, is DYOR. That’s do your own research, and as always I provide links to my stories on this blog at www.sustainablefutures.report to give you a starting point.
I’m Anthony Day.
Many thanks to you for listening, particular thanks to patrons for supporting and special thanks to Tom de Simone for being our very latest patron. You too can be a patron if you hop across to patreon.com/SFR.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report and there'll be another one next month. In fact there will probably be another one next week because of course next Friday is 5th October. Between now and then enjoy everything you're doing and if you have any ideas, suggestions or comments contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just before I finally go, I have a special offer for you. You remember that I reviewed Catherine Weetman’s book on the circular economy last time? She’s offering a special 20% discount to Sustainable Futures Report listeners. Go to koganpage.com - the full link is on the blog - https://www.koganpage.com/product/supply-chains-for-a-circular-economy-9780749476755, and use the discount code CIRCULAR20 which she assures me makes it even cheaper than at Amazon.
And that really is all!
Bye for now.