Reaction against the age of machines

By Ms. President (Flickr User) -, CC BY-SA 2.0,

I read an interesting and worrying article looking at the beginnings of a backlash against the age of machines by new “luddites” in the paper yesterday.  It looked at a range of reactions against social media and automation. The luddites were a social movement that attacked spinning machines in the early 1800’s.  Up until then weaving machinery was looms and was hand operated.  A series of entrepreneurs in the UK came up with the idea of using first water power then the new technology of steam to power huge looms in factories.  The industrial revolution was born the age of machines started and the rest is history as they say.  The luddites had their jobs threatened and attacked the new factories.

There have been some arson attacks on tech targets worldwide and a surprisingly large number of organised group attacks on Uber cars (also worldwide).  The article went beyond that and looked at the general backlash against social media.  Apparently there are also a record number of new communes starting up.  This was seen as a reaction against technology but could also be a more general concern about the global political solution.

There are parallels with the 1800’s but there are also differences.  The similarities are that jobs are threatened by new technology.  The advocates of the new technology make some good and bad arguments in favour of it.  They rightly point out that in the past new technology has created more new jobs than it destroyed (and we cannot know what these jobs are in advance).  The article then quoted some crass extensions to this argument stating that lorry drivers should retrain as programmers.  This raises the issue that is also raised by globalisation separately from the age of machines.  That is those who gain or not always (at least in the short term) not the same as those who lose.  There are other big concerns here.  Firstly the automation is not confined to one sector (say manufacturing).  There are people loosing their jobs in insurance not to robots but algorithms.  Robots are starting to appear in shops along with self serve tills.  In other words the age of machines is working at multiple levels threatening both working and middle class jobs all the same time.

Another difference is there is also a backlash against the fringes of this technology i.e. social media.  This is an important difference with the early 1800’s (although newspapers were just getting going).  The complaints against the big giants of social media are many.  However as the article pointed out that does not stop us using them.

There are a number of concerns about new technology from social to energy use but in democracies there is no excuse for violence.  The whole automation era does need to handled well though otherwise they could be real trouble.


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One thing we have learnt this week – new types of solar cells

I read a very interesting article in the Guardian this week that got me thinking about  types of solar cells.  The main article was that silicon solar cost reductions were falling away and this opened the door for new types of solar namely Perovskite types.

Reviewing the different types and how they work before we get to this new potential type.

How do they work.  A very simple explanation which applies to all types, the materials maybe the different but the underlying physics is the same.  Taking silicon types.  Edmund Bequerel discovered the photo electric effect in 1839 and Einstein got a Nobel prize for his explanation of it.  Certain materials (and there are quite a range of them) when exposed to light the photons cause electrons to be freed from the material (e.g. silicon).  In a pure material this is useless since the electron is recaptured easily.  However you can change the behaviour by doping the silicon.  Silicon has 4 electrons in outer orbital by adding small amounts of phosphorous with 5 electrons in its outer shell you give it one electron with nothing to do which can be liberated by light and move around.  This is known as N-type.  By doping with boron you do the opposite there is a shortage of electrons and a positive charge can move (P-type).  Both can be liberated by light and are laid on top of one another (a semiconductor).   The charges liberated by light have desire to move from one side to the other to equalise charges.  This is a current which can be used.  All types work in the same way.  The light has to be pretty specific wavelengths (just the right energy) do this for specific materials.  These main types are.  (Note many have been combined which raises efficiency).

Silicon.  The most common type in the world today.  The graph below shows this success.  In 2004 when we got our first system we were thought of as eccentric and there was barely 4GWp worldwide now the total is over 300GWp (source various) and you cannot go anywhere without seeing a roof covered in modules.

Graph of solar capacity 2018The a number of disadvantages to this technology.  The first is it takes a lot of energy to make the cells.  The raw silicon must be purified by heating to a molten state.  This has led to the incorrect rumour that these cells never return the energy used to make them.  This is not true.  In actual fact the energy return has improved and the efficiency of energy conversion has increased (see next graph below).  The theoretical maximum is about 29%.

1024px-PVeff(rev171030)One major disadvantage is that convert at the red end of the spectrum and so require bright sunlight.  Another is the cells have to be cut very thin which is not easy.   There are two types monocrystalline and polycrystalline.  Mono are more efficient and more expensive and work slightly more cross spectrum.   One major advantage is their longevity.  Both have 25 year guarantees.  Also they can be recycled into new cells.

Thin film.  This includes a raft of technologies including one silicon and the phrase relates to the fact that the layers are far thinner.   Lots of these are transition metal based such as copper indium gallium diselenide.  They have a number of advantages in that they use less material and energy to make.  They can also be rolled out into thin layers so could be used on walls windows etc.  They have never really caught on and make up about 15% of the market.

Amorphous silicon.  This is a silicon based technology that is thin film with lower purity silicon.  The advantages are it uses recycled materials from the electronics industry.  They also work far more cross spectrum.  This means that they work as well on a cloudy day as a sunny day.  The disadvantages are they are less efficient with shorter guarantees.  They have been failure issues particularly in hot countries.

Organic.  Organic molecules can absorb photons and liberate them as a semiconductor.  Lots of different types are under development.  The advantages are those of thin film.  The disadvantage is that the efficiencies and life are lower.

Perovskite types.  Technically a thin film (as you see there is overlap between the different types).  Perovskite is a mineral but this is not used to make the cells.  The word relates to the 3D arrangement of atoms not the materials used.  The advantages are as thin film.  The disadvantages are that getting large sheets of this material are challenging.

New types of solar cells are being worked on all the time but silicon is very dominant that its difficult for new technologies to break through.  Are argument in the article was that new types of solar cells are required since the cost reductions in silicon are slowing down.  Is this really true?

Price_history_of_silicon_PV_cells_since_1977.svgThe pace is lower but looking at the graph these reductions are still huge in % terms and certainly many believe these reductions will continue (such as the Fraunhofer institute).  New types of solar cells will still find it difficult to break through.  In addition many new types of solar cells are best combined with silicon anyway.


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Is peak oil dead? BP energy outlook 2018.

Is peak oil dead?  This is the intriguing question raised by BP’s 2018 energy outlook.  Since the collapse in the oil price in 2018 the conventional wisdom has been that peak oil is dead.  The arguments do not for once come from the supply side but from the demand side.  A number of things reinforce this argument, which was one we did not cover in our book.  These are basically that renewables have really taken off with huge drops in costs.  Also electric car sales are growing exponentially albeit from a very low base.  Again costs and more significantly ranges are moving in the right direction.  Very importantly on this one governments all over the world have made commitments to ban conventional vehicles at some point in the future (usually 2030-40).

However balanced against the above are 3 factors that BP must be relying on for their arguments. These are that oil, gas and coal are used not just for generating electricity but also for transport, plastics and space heating.  On transport BP reckon that oil demand for transport was 18.7Mbd in 2016 and will be 18.6Mbd in 2040.  Look at the graph below I have drawn below using BP’s data.  Whilst the internal combustion engine data includes hybrids BP clearly see most cars on the road in 2040 relying at least in part on oil.

BP car data energy outlook 2018Looking at oil demand BP see this growing.  Look at the next graph I’ve drawn from their data of % share of total energy production by source.

BP data energy outlook 2018It appears to show oil use has peaked.  Indeed as a % share of world energy it did in about 1975.  However since global energy demand is still rising the global oil demand is still rising.  This means from 2016 production levels (about 97Mbd) we need an increase to 116Mbd.

Can this be done?  Its a big increase.  BP see US shale oil in the early years and OPEC in the last 10 years of their scenario as critical.   However they say;

For there to be sufficient oil supplies to be able to meet demand in any of the
scenarios considered requires significant levels of new investment in oil production.
If there were no new investment in oil production from today, and existing
production declined at 3% p.a., global oil supplies would be around 45 Mb/d in 2040.”

Is peak oil dead?  Not sure.  It depends on so many factors that run against on another.  If electric car use and renewables growth is faster than people think (and renewables growth is always faster than predicted) then demand will peak.  If production slows or cannot be maintained then we are back to peal oil.  Currently electric car sales are still low…


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One thing we have learnt this week – solar power in Nepal

himalayas-407_1920I heard a very interesting report on solar power in Nepal this week on the radio.  Solar power is not the first thing that you think of when you think of Nepal.  The first thing you think of is hydropower.

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world.  Its electricity consumption was only 70kW per person per year.  To put this in perspective there are plenty of people who manage to use this much in one day in the West.  Nepal uses the following energy sources;

Biomass. 85% of the population is rural and uses precious trees for cooking, lighting and heating.  This leads to considerable respiratory disease problems.

Carbon fuels.  Nepalese also rely on imported oil and kerosene leading to the same problems as above, plus the requirement for foreign exchange.

Hydropower.  The theoretical capacity of Nepal is huge over 40,000MWp of practical resources.  Its actual installed capacity is a mere 576MWp (grid connected).  There are lot of micro and pico hydro plants not connected to the grid.  Over a 1000 have been funded by the world bank.

Wind.  The wind resource is apparently quite poor but some non grid connected wind is installed.

Solar.  The solar resource is very good.  Its this that was covered in the programme slot.  Previous attempts have suffered from the usual problem, developed world comes in funds high tech solution in village – goes away – system falls to bits.  However what has changed is that the Nepalese government in 2002 with the support of the Danish government set up a subsidy scheme for very small systems (10-40 watts).  This enough for phone charging and most importantly lighting when combined with some batteries.  This has led to the creation of a local installer base which can also troubleshoot and maintain systems.

Solar power in Nepal is not the first thing you would think of but such systems are vital in bringing power to over 80% of those who live without it in a sustainable way.


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Offshore wind

2013-07-13 19.28.08Did you know the UK built over half of Europe’s offshore wind capacity in 2017?  Nor was it a trivial amount of offshore wind capacity either, at over 3GWp.  This as the USA has yet to install one offshore wind turbine.  The total increase in European offshore wind capacity was 25% year on year.  This only looks to increase in the future.  This is for two reasons.

New players are entering the game.  The French are starting to crank up their offshore wind capacity.  They wish to reduce their dependence on nuclear as they have a huge problem with most of their capacity coming to the end of its life.

The second reason is costs are plunging.  This is partly about numbers and partly about cost.  Obviously as more and more turbines are put out at sea the leraning costs fall.  The main reason however is the turbines are getting bigger and bigger with higher capacity.  Only a few years ago a large turbine was 5MWp.  Now its 8-9MWp and soon it will by 13-15MWp.  Whilst these are larger they are not twice the size.  In addition floating turbines are being tried.  These save on the cost of being fixed to the seabed.  Cost wise it looks like rivalling solar for undercutting all other power generation costs over the next 5-10 years.


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One thing we have learnt this week – plastic Lent

lent word cloud 2018Its not that its plastic lent or lent is plastic!  Lent has arrived again this year.  This I’m going to major on plastic.  Over the last year plastic waste has moved up most peoples agendas with particular concerns over plastic ending up in the oceans.  For lent this year I’ve decided to reduce my plastic use (as has my daughter who far more bravely than me is going to post what she does use on the internet).

I have decided to start small and make one change every month for the next year (or I should say we as a household).  I will be updating this as we go along.  Lent just brings an extra focus handily close to the start of the effort and hopefully by making a small sacrifice then will remember Christ’s bigger one – which is the point.

January.  We bought (plastic) containers but use these to put food in that might dry out like cheese when stored in the fridge.  The saving is huge on plastic bags (and in the long term will save money).

February. We stopped buying fizzy drinks in large 2L plastic bottles (buy cans).  Note we never buy water in plastic bottles.  Started taking paper bags to the shops to put fruit/veg in instead of plastic bags that shops insist you use.  This morning bough loose potatoes and refused plastic bag to put them and put them straight in my bag.

Yes these changes are small on an individual basis but if all started making them…

Here are some more ideas from Bettina interviewed on yesterdays Radio 4 PM (log in required unfortunately).

Loose Tea.  Teabags contain plastic – yes I could not believe it either.  The COOP is going to stop using it in its everyday teabags and whilst this is my first company endorsement ever, I don’t care.  We will be buying these in future particularly when they are still fair trade when other companies are doing away with it.

Make you own soap/deodorant etc.

Go for refills.

Make a less plastic lent!


Full “No oil in the lamp” Lent guide here.


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Tree planting

B and W birch trunkThere was an interesting, encouraging but realistic article in the Guardian today on tree planting.  The easiest way to cut carbon emissions is not to produce the carbon in the first place.  One if not the easiest way to do this is in the area of agriculture and one of these areas is forestry.  It seems as part of the Paris climate agreement countries have pledged to plant trees and lots of them.  China has pledged to plant a forest the size of Ireland.  Countries in latin America have pledged to restore 20M Ha of damaged forset and in Africa pleageds have been made to restore 100M Ha.   India has said they will plant 13M Ha hectares.  Last year volunteers made a start on this planting over 66 million trees in one day A whole heap of other countries in Europe have also made pledges.  Worldwide its now 120 countries.

There are many good reasons for planting trees.  These include wellbeing (mental health benefits, physical health benefits (from natural products), but also other tangible physical benefits.  These include creating or increasing rainfall and holding soil together.  Trees also act as windbreaks and can be used for fuel.  Chopping forests down risk creating desert.  I saw this first hand over 20 years ago in Sumatra.

So why the enthusiasm?  Its easy to see governments see this as an easy win.  In principle planting trees is not unpopular.  We need some caution though.  Mistakes have been made in the past.  In the UK monocultural plantations of non native species were planted by government.  These proved unpopular.  In addition private forests in the UK have been badly managed.  This is an issue with new planting it needs looking after.  I have written before about a carbon offsetting tree scheme by a rock star in a very remote part of Scotland,  the very young trees had all died.  In the developed world the best way is to involve local populations.  This has been done successfully in Mali and Pakistan using a system agriculture called agroforestry.  In this crops and trees are interspersed.

Another note of caution.  Whilst deforestation has slowed in countries such as Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia a good deal of logging (illegal or legal) is still taking place, mainly to plant monoculture such as palm oil.   The easiest forest is the one still standing not the one to be planted from scratch.




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One thing we have learnt this week – Polish coal

smog-3125312_1920UK insurer Aviva has criticised this week for pouring money into Polish coal this week and undermining the fight against climate change.  We tend to think of King coal as been if not dead at least on its way out but whilst it may be down, its not quite out.  France has announced its closing all its coal fired power stations (it cannot have many) and the UK is on its way to closing the lot (with no effects on the increasingly renewable dominated grid yet), but some countries still use a lot of coal.  These countries include China (also phasing out coal), India (not doing so), Germany (a surprise) and Poland.  Polish coal is used not just for generating power and making steel but also for heating houses.  So you have a mix of industrial pollution, pollution from coal fired power station, from cars and from houses.  The pollution has got so bad drones are being used in at least one city to search for culprits.

Unfortunately the country is planning to build another 10GW of new capacity.  It was pointed out by a defender of this that new kit uses a lot less of the black stuff than of old.  It used to take 4Kg to generate 1Kw now it takes 700g.  Even so Poland is going to have to stop burning coal not just for its own sake but also that of its neighbours.


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Is your home still behaving badly?

insulationIs your home still behaving badly?  On a recent sort out I found some old publications. Its interesting to look back at this older stuff to see what’s come to pass and what hasn’t.   I have written on one about electric cars recently.  I found this publication “Is your home still behaving badly?” from the Energy Saving Trust”.  Its an energy advice pamphlet from ordinary people from 2002.

Energy costs.  The average house uses £590 pounds – far too much (2002)!  Now its over double that (2018)!  However given the amount that energy has gone up since then there is some evidence for the assertion that energy costs would be even higher if many of us had not taken some energy efficiency measures in the meanwhile.

Lights.  Technology has moved on a lot in the last 16 years.  The talk then was all about compact fluorescents.  The example costs given are impressive and even with electricity prices at 7p a unit would pay for themselves and more over their life.  The light was poor compared with incandescent bulbs and they needed to warm-up.  They improved on all counts though.  I’ve got rid off almost all them and replaced them with LED’s, then a distant dream.  I found they gradually put out less and less light.

White goods.  Sorted.  Thanks to the energy rating system.  Try buying anything less than an A rated, you’ll struggle.  Same for computers/TV’s/anything everything you buy is much more energy efficient.

Heating.  Mixed I think.   Boilers are all A rated at least and condensing models.   There were a lot of issues over reliability (probably due the mix of electronics and heat) but that is said to have improved.  Most people have thermostatic radiator valves fitted and better controls (both recommendations).  How people use their heating is another matter though.  Much depends on insulation.

Insulation.  This an area where there is still much to do.  Many houses still do not have much in the way of insulation in the loft.  Certainly in the millions in the UK.  Cavity wall insulation has proved very controversial with damp problems and government support has waxed and waned.  Pipe and tank insulation is another area where more needs to be done.  Many people simply cannot be bothered with any of this and it can be disruptive.  One big innovation since 2002 is loft insulation made form recycled plastic, much nicer to work with.

Double glazing.  Still not economic despite increases in gas prices, people tend to replace single windows with it when required.  That’s the way it will go.  Can be a problem still in conservation areas and old houses.

Lifestyle.  How you use all the above will dictate your energy use.  The average energy bill and the drop in electricity consumption does suggest people are slowly learning to live more energy efficient lives.



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One thing we have learnt this week – is solar killing gas?

DSCN1669Is solar killing gas?  The government is struggling to get energy companies to build new plant despite the contracts for difference paying gas fired plants record amounts of money it turns out this week.  So is gas going to go the same way as coal.  Over the last few years the amount of coal power on the UK grid has plunged.   President trump take note – its not wanted or required.  The massive rise in renewable energy has killed king coal (or nearly in the UK).  Have the lights gone out- no (well only in localised areas due to storms).

Is solar killing gas? The early signs are there.  The quantity of new plant planned is falling and is now less than half that planned a few years ago.  At the same time offshore wind and solar are forecast to be cheaper than gas (and anything else) in just a few years time.  On shore wind is almost certainly cheaper now.  The real threat to gas and other forms of power generation is not so much renewables themselves as energy storage.  The battery is coming of age and its this that will kill coal, gas and nuclear.  Where this leaves fracking is a moot point, but since the election the government shows signs of going lukewarm on it.



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