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21 August 2017

Demand Sustainability – it's the only way

Computer keyboard with shopping key

We've had a steady stream of pro-electric vehicle news stories this summer – R&D investment, supplier pledges, far off in the future pledges to ban petrol/diesel vehicles, but the one that encourages me most is the pledge by 100 UK organisations to buy at least 5% of their fleet electric. Why? Because we can plan and innovate all we like, but only demand will make a sustainable economy happen. Demand drives investment, innovation, reduces costs, improves quality and focusses minds.

This means that any organisation worth its sustainability salt should be using their buying power to drive change amongst their suppliers. Every dollar spent on more sustainable products, materials and/or energy not only reduces that organisation's own footprint, but makes it easier for others to reduce theirs.


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3 July 2017

Sustainability doesn't get easier...

Eee, it's my favourite sporting event of the year, le grand boucle itself, the Tour De France. Setting off on Saturday from Dusseldorf, home to cycle-crazy electronic pioneers Kraftwerk, the next three weeks are going to involve a lot of me working with ITV4 in the background as the peloton trundles across Europe.

My own cycling has been limited to moderate coffee rides since my first century ride two weeks ago, so yesterday I decided to test the legs with a climb up into the North Penines to Blanchland. There was a pretty 'fresh' (always a meteorological understatement) headwind for the climbing and the moor roads, and I was a bit disappointed in how my legs felt.

But then when I uploaded and checked my ride data on Strava, I found that I had ridden a lot quicker than the last time I'd done it a month ago (and I don't remember grinding into the wind then). In fact on one of the early headwind segments (defined stretches of road on Strava), I not only set a personal record, but was fastest of the 41 Strava users who had been that way all day.

And then I remembered the wise words of three-times Tour de France winner Greg LeMond:

It doesn't get easier, you just go faster.

Last night, I was mulling on this quote and Sustainability. We Sustainability professionals have a tendency to dream of a day that we get to the top of the climb and freewheel downhill.

But, let's face it, that never happens. We run out of quick wins and then we start looking at the step changes. Legislation changes, technology emerges and previously unforeseen environmental/social issues suddenly bubble up in the press. Sustainable supply chains and market awareness take time to mature.

It always feels like a slog, but if we look around, we're also taking for granted what seemed so impossible just a few years ago. Just look at the UK's electricity mix where renewables are booming and coal collapsing. You can now propose 'zero waste' without other people's mouths dropping open. Some of the best cars in the world are powered by electricity.

We are going faster, it just doesn't feel like it!


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7 June 2017

Evolve or die

old oil pump

I had an interesting (off-the-record) chat with a contact in the energy sector yesterday. I was left with the clear impression that the fossil fuel sector is not only having to contract in the face of the shift to low carbon, but adapt to find the niches in the emerging energy mix where they can support renewables rather than compete head on.

I think this need to evolve is crucial as the changes keep coming, or new businesses will simply grab market share in the new reality. It has happened in electronics when the valve manufacturers didn't adapt to the transistor, and, most notoriously, in photography where Kodak invented the digital camera and then sat back and watch others exploit that technology to cannibalise their market in a matter of years.

One of the interesting things about technology is you often get all the component parts way down the S-curve, but when the ingredients are right and the market ready, the rise can be explosive. It doesn't surprise me for example that electric vehicles haven't yet displaced the internal combustion engine, but when the change happens it could be very abrupt.

So you need to be scanning the horizon for the opportunities in your sector and be ready to exploit them, as those opportunities can be catastrophic threats to those who cling to the status quo.


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23 January 2017

A Green Industrial Strategy for the UK? Ish.

Theresa_May_UK_Home_Office_(cropped)UK Prime Minister Theresa May has a reputation as something of an inscrutable sphinx and we only get glimpses of what makes her tick. When she stepped up to the hot seat, there was none of the husky-hugging of her predecessor and she abolished the Department of Energy and Climate Change to the dismay and anger of the green commentariat. However, I was less worried about that as DECC had been folded into the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy where arguably it could be better integrated into business as usual rather than being treated as a special case – and BEIS Minister Greg Clark is a champion of carbon reduction.

So today, we get an insight on progress as the Government publishes the 10 pillars of its Industrial Strategy. And one of the pillars is rather encouraging:

Delivering affordable energy & clean growth: We will keep energy costs down, build the energy structure we need for new technologies, and secure the economic benefits of our move towards a low carbon economy.

Added to this is various public statements by the PM and BEIS ministers over the last 48 hours singling out electric vehicles, battery technology, 'smart energy' and nuclear as areas they would like to boost. I'm very pleased with this as I've long called for Government intervention to accelerate the smart grid as a way of unlocking more, and greener, growth, than the usual road building.

So far, so good, but what's not there?

The big omission is the circular economy which as usual has to play second fiddle to low carbon energy. For as long as I've been in the sustainability trade, this has been the case – 'waste' is simply not seen as sexy enough. I think it is time for a rebrand, focussing on technologies such as bioprocessing, smart disassembly, automatic sorting technologies and using big data methods to facilitate reverse logistics. More white coats and coding, a bit less in the way of tipper trucks, in other words. A circular economy would also boost the robustness of a post-Brexit UK economy – a key way of selling it to the green-sceptic amongst May's backbenchers.

The other problem is that the industrial strategy launch has been overshadowed by news of another – a misfiring Trident missile last year which hit the headlines yesterday. Events, my dear boy, events...


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11 May 2016

Reasons to be cheerful (pt 396)

old oil pump

Here's a selection of headlines from the last few days:

We're getting to the stage where headlines like these hardly make a ripple. The revelation last month that the UK produced a full 25% of its electricity from renewable sources last year, with an additional 20% or so coming from low carbon nuclear, hardly raised an eyebrow. When I got started in Sustainability in 1998, the former figure was at a mere 2% with 90% of that being Scottish hydropower.

I believe there's only one way the world is moving now and it's towards a low carbon economy. We've got a long way to go, and some rocks to navigate, but we've almost certainly pointed the ship in the right direction. Full steam ahead!


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4 March 2016

Getting smart on smart grids

Man installing solar panels

The Smart-grid has always been more talked about than done, but now the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has announced that the UK could save up to £8bn a year by using electricity smarter, bringing it up the news agenda.

The main benefit of a Smart Grid is that it can match supply and demand in an intelligent way – so, to take a  if everybody gets up at half-time during a cup final and switches on the kettle then your fridge will hold off on firing up its compressor until the spike has gone. Likewise, you may benefit from cheaper electricity to charge your electric car overnight – and maybe sell some of that stored energy back to the grid at peak times. It would truly unlock what I call Energy 2.0 – when energy consumers become producers as well.

I've long argued that if the Government wants to make a Keynesian investment in infrastructure, then instead of the grandiose transport projects (which feature mature technologies), investment in a Smart Grid would stimulate a cascade of innovation given the technology is new and it would unlock further opportunities in renewable energy. But we seem bogged down in protocols when we need a revolution.

Lets get smart.


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20 January 2016

There's always an excuse to do nothing...

the end is nigh

A couple of weeks ago, the wonderful Green Thinkers group I'm a member of considered Energy Without The Hot Air by David MacKay – a very analytical look at the energy challenge. Today there was an article in Guardian Sustainable Business taking a similar analytical look at electric cars. Both come to fairly pessimistic conclusions.

Despite all the numbers, I have a problem with this approach.

First, these analyses tend to use a snapshot of current technology and economics. They take little account of trends, future policy and obviously they can't predict technological breakthrough as that is unpredictable.

But, more importantly, the authors seem to revel in how impossible the challenge is right now, rather than focussing on solving it in the medium/long term. We end up feeling powerless and frustrated, entangled in short term issues when we should be creating the future we want.

This happens to be the theme of this month's Ask Gareth, if you haven't already seen it. I explain why forecasting is dangerous and why you should backcast instead.

If you are interested in Backcasting, it's one of the workshop formats I cover in my on-line Workshop Masterclass.


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26 October 2015

New technology vs old rules...

swegwayLast Friday, my partner, Karen, and I sat down to rewatch Back to the Future II, only to find a. we had never actually seen it before and, b. this wasn't a bad thing, given some of the acting, dialogue and plotting. There has been a big fuss in the old and new media about how accurate the movie's 2015 sequence turned out to be: the video communication system looked surprisingly close to a Skype/Facebook hybrid, but sadly we haven't got the hover boards, unless you count the rather earth-bound Swegway (above right).

I saw someone trundling along our local cycle path on one of these this morning. He was probably breaking the law as they can't be ridden on public highways according to the Highway Act of 1835.

Yep, you read that right. 1835.

OK, all the attempts at revolutionary personal transport from the Sinclair C5 onwards have been a bit pants, but that's how innovation works. Version 1.0 of anything is a bit pants (the original iPhone had no video capability, already standard on other phones), but version 2.0 generally starts to be useful. But we need to get demand going for those early versions in order to get to up the innovation S-curve.

If we are strangling innovative ideas at birth with legislation set down 180 years ago, no wonder we get stuck in the old, high carbon ways of thinking. Maybe the Swegway is the start of something useful, but we'll probably never find out.

If the rules don't work, let's change the rules!


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20 March 2015

Green SME Interview: Alex Hurst, Phoenix Taxis

Alex Hurst PhoenixAlex Hurst is the CEO of Phoenix Taxis based in Blyth Northumberland which currently has the biggest operational fleet of electric cars in the UK. In this revealing interview he tells the story of the business and some important insights into running a green business in the real world. It includes the first case I've come across of a sustainable decision being made in response to supplier pressure, rather than customer pressure.

What’s the history of Phoenix Taxis?

Phoenix taxis was started in 1990 by my Dad. Since then we’ve operated within the licensing restrictions of what was Blyth Valley in South East Northumberland. From 1990 to 2009, the company steadily grew to 80 cars. Since then, when the restrictions were relaxed, we were able to expand to the rest of Northumberland and since 2010, when I joined the business, we’ve managed to more than double in size to over 200 vehicles.

And when did the shift to low carbon vehicles happen?

The first step was the Nissan LEAF being the first widespread consumer EV available on the market. We kept an eye on it as, before me, my Dad has always used alternative fuels – LPG instead of petrol or diesel because of the cost savings. When the LEAF came onto the market, the subsidies from the Government made it a cost effective option as a taxi. We then had to get it licensed as a taxi.

We had a lot of trouble as it is quite small – many Councils including Northumberland refused, but we got on to Nissan who persuaded them to grant a license – I’m exactly not sure how! We got funding for six charging posts to accelerate the process, but they didn’t work. That held us up for 6-12 months because we couldn’t get more cars – we were limited to the two LEAFs we had bought in 2012 until the infrastructure was sorted.

However it was about this time, with just a couple of EVs and a couple of hybrids, that we realised that there was a customer demand for sustainable transport particularly amongst large corporate clients. We now have 41 hybrids and 32 EVs – that’s the biggest operational fleet of EVs on the road – I don’t know how long that will last when people cotton on to it!

So, the business case evolved from cost saving to customer demand?

Yes, definitely.

And you’ve now got a Lexus Hybrid and a Telsa Model S – did that come from customer demand? Read the rest of this entry »

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13 February 2015

I've seen the future, and it's a taxi...

tesla taxi cropped

"Fancy a go in a Tesla Model S?" they asked.

"When? Where?" it took a real effort not to scream.

Like many in our sector, I worship Tesla as not only the first company to get EVs right, but as true cleantech pioneers, shaking up traditional business models with their open sourcing of patents and sales of batteries for domestic energy storage. But I'd never actually had a go in one.

And when I saw the Model S, I was stunned. It is a very, very handsome car, clearly aimed at the Jag/Lexus market. I couldn't wait to get going.

The only snag was this one is a registered taxi - the only Tesla Taxi in the North of England, no less - so I couldn't drive it on the public highway. So we set off with Bryan Chater (above, right) of Phoenix Taxis driving, me in the passenger seat, attention split between marvelling at the car and scanning the horizon for a piece of non-highway tarmac so I could get my mitts on the steering wheel.

Read the rest of this entry »

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20 June 2014

My Generation (or the next...)?

Happy friends

I was speaking to a senior manager from a major company last week, a gent of a certain age on the brink of retirement, and I asked when he thought sustainability would be truly mainstreamed. And his reply?

"When your generation is in charge."

Scary thing is, it already is. Many of the most powerful in our country are my age or thereabouts. And many aren't covering themselves in glory, are they George Osborne?

Maybe the Millenials, who don't know life without kerbside recycling, will make the leap. Or my kids generation where hybrids, electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels are perfectly normal, or...


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13 June 2014

Elon Musk, disruptive innovation & sustainability

tesla pic by Gareth Kane of Terra Infirma Ltd

Regular readers will need no reminder of my high regard for Tesla Motors and its maverick owner Elon Musk. And the thing I like the most is the way he thinks differently from everybody else, to take three examples:

  • Launching an electric vehicle company on the back of a roadster with astonishing performance (above);
  • Seeing and exploiting the cross-over between EV and domestic battery systems;
  • Launching an all-electric sedan that you would want to buy whether or not you want an EV.

Well Mr Musk has done it again, throwing another innovative cat amongst the business as usual pigeons. He's announced that he will make a number of key patents open source so others can use them without paying royalties. This flies in the face of the usual secrecy in the motor industry.

But it is classic 'creating shared value' thinking. The more electric vehicles on the roads, the more prices will come down and the more infrastructure will get installed which means more electric vehicles will get sold, which means carbon emissions will fall and so on.

It is very easy for commentators like me to say we've got to think different for sustainability - I certainly don't claim to have all the answers. But Elon Musk is a shining beacon for those of us who believe the solutions are out there - if only we free our minds from business as usual.


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19 March 2014

Interview with Andy Griffiths, Sustainability Manager, Nestlé UK

Here's the latest in a series of interviews I have carried out with key industrial sustainability practitioners. Andy Griffiths is Sustainability Manager at Nestlé UK's Newcastle site which is the test bed for sustainability across the business. You can see the rest of the interviews here.


Hi Andy, how did you personally get started in sustainability?

I’m an engineer by trade so I’ve always been interested in engineering and technology but also I’ve a strong interest in self build and off-grid properties and how it would affect us in terms of lifestyle and where we would sit in our local community. When I came into this role two years ago, it was my first formal environmental management job.

My role covers safety, health, environment and security. From an environmental perspective, because we identified our Newcastle site as a 'lighthouse' site for sustainability, we have been looking at how we could structure an appropriate model to deliver that. So a lot of my time and focus, particularly in the first 18 months, has been establishing that model and the core activities within it.


What does the lighthouse status mean?

The lighthouse concept was developed a few years ago to pick one site which we could use as a sustainability model. This could be blueprinted and shared across our other sites.

We’ve got six pillars within the model: energy, water, waste, biodiversity, value chain and, most importantly, people and community. We identified early on that different things float different boats for different people. So instead of having an overall environmental message for everyone to buy into, we have those individual pillars with an aspirational ambition against each one. This allows individuals to tailor their preferences, so if someone is particularly interested in biodiversity, for example, they can really get hold of that. Someone else may be much more interested in energy so they can work on that instead.


Why was Newcastle picked as a lighthouse site?

There were two very important reasons:

First the variety of processes. This is a very complex site and covers a wide range of confectionary so anything we do here is as transferable as possible to other sites.

Secondly, the age of the site. Some organisations have developed really good principles and protocols for green field sites but it is much more challenging on pre-existing sites. This site has been here 56 years so if you can do it here, there’s no reason why you can’t do it anywhere else.


Read the rest of this entry »

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27 January 2014

Reasons to be cheerful (parts 1-327)

business angel

We can be a gloomy lot, us environmentalists - always on the verge of despair. But, hold on a minute...

  • Renewable energy produced a record 15.5% of the UK’s electricity in the second quarter of 2013 – up 50% on the previous year (rewind a decade and renewables hardly bothered the statisticians);
  • Portugal managed a whopping 70% of electricity from renewables in quarter 1. Iceland is pretty much zero carbon in this respect, Spain and Germany are also breaking records left right and centre;
  • The cost of a solar panel has plummeted by a factor of 100 since the 1970s and halved in just the last couple of years;
  • Electric vehicle sales in the US have risen 447% on the back of the Tesla Model S. The Tesla was also the best selling car of any kind in Norway in September, but it got bumped in October - by its electric cousin the Nissan Leaf.
  •  The amount of material going to landfill in the UK has hit an all-time low;
  • According to the CBI, a third of all UK growth now comes from the green sector;
  • The rise in global carbon emissions slowed last year.

And there's grim news for business as usual:

  • Fossil energy prices remain stubbornly high despite the shale gas boom in the US;
  • Commodity prices in general are higher than they have ever been since we started measuring them.

OK, there's no room for complacency, but we are making progress and we should be proud of that. We won't get to tipping points without struggling through the 'hard yards' of breaking open vested interests and established infrastructure first. Telling other people "we'll never make it" dispirits them as well as us. So let's cheer up, be proud and keep on at it!


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8 November 2013

Are we winning?

raceRegular readers may have noticed a rather upbeat tone to my posts here recently. And for good reason. Renewables starting to take big chunks out of the energy budget (15.5% of electricity in the UK last quarter), more renewables are coming on stream, electric vehicles starting to look like winners (sales up 447% in the US, Tesla sedan and Leaf hitting top of car sales in Norway), a semi-circular economy (waste to landfill falling) - the good news keeps on coming.

But I must admit I was worried I was overdoing it - surely the big picture is still worsening? Well, last week we got the news that the rise in carbon emissions is 'slowing down' due to "the use of less fossil fuels, more renewable energy and increased energy savings" in a way that the researchers involved believe is permanent, not a blip.

So, are we winning?

Not yet. Emissions are still rising (hitting a record last year), we are likely to have used our carbon budget by 2034 (according to PwC) and there is plenty of bad news about. But it does look as if the brakes are starting to come on carbon in particular and, in the economy, the momentum is swinging in our direction. And I think we should celebrate. Yes, celebrate.

Many people believe that there's a risk of people sitting on their laurels when good news come through and that we should keep up the doom-mongering (stand up, numerous NGOs and take a bow). But in my experience it is despair and feelings of helplessness that freeze progress, not success. We are competitive people - when we achieve a goal we tend to celebrate then press on with enthusiasm to do even better - otherwise nobody would ever start level 2 of any computer game.

Every win you, me or they make is a small step towards a sustainable society - a noble goal. So, yes, let's pat ourselves on our collective backs, smile, then psyche ourselves up to take on the next challenge with relish!


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28 October 2013

Tesla: The Apple of Greentech

Remember what smartphones were like before the iPhone? Fiddly keyboards, nests of menus and terrible web navigation. Then along came Steve Job's little shiny slab of cool and the market, and arguably society, were transformed. As every hagiography of Jobs reminds us, it was that constant drive to produce 'insanely great' products that work for the user (rather than the programmer) that delivered this mobile computing transformation.

I can't help but see a parallel with Tesla motors - insanely great products that people love, driven by an outspoken entrepreneur, Elon Musk, and just happen to be the greenest cars on the road. With the original Roadster, the company bucked the trend for dull, utilitarian electric vehicles by launching a sports car whose acceleration terrified petrol head Jeremy Clarkson (before he pretended it broke down). Now with the Model S, they've produced a saloon which has single handedly boosted US EV sales by 447% in a single year, tackling the 'fiddly keyboard' of the electric car world - range anxiety - with 310 miles in the tank battery. Musk's uncompromising vision, like Jobs, has set the bar high enough to finally make this revolution happen.

And the lesson for the rest of us? To succeed, green products and services must be insanely great. Full stop.


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18 October 2010

Sustainable Cities & Green Business

I'm walking on sunshine today as Newcastle upon Tyne has be rated "most sustainable city in the UK" by Forum for the Future. Not just civic pride in the city I live in, but because, with my councillor hat on, I'm second in command of all things green at the City Council. This is the second year in a row we have topped the rankings; the first city to do it twice.

But my pride is tempered with slight bemusement as we still think we're just getting started. While we are doing a huge amount of exciting stuff, Newcastle doesn't look 'green' per se - we still have gridlock during rush hour, a motorway slashes through the city centre and renewable energy is conspicuous by its absence. Much of this will change as we plan to get a few hundred solar PV panels going up on suitable council houses in the next year or so, and we're desperately trying to unlock the cycling-pit-of-doom which is our city centre.

So, going from the specific to the general, what does sustainable urbanism offer green business and vice versa? As with mobile telecommunications, the population density of a city gives a brilliant test bed for emerging technologies and business services. Electric and hydrogen vehicle infrastructure will appear in city centres long before suburbia and rural. District heating systems depend on large 'anchor tenants' to make the system economically viable. Specialist green retail is also more likely to survive in a big city. The main downside is the density of buildings makes renewable energy difficult.Retrofitting urban buildings is going to be very big business very soon.

And what can businesses offer cities as part of their Corporate Civic Responsibility (to coin a phrase)? Locating in the city centre will help preserve the vitality of the urban core - and improve the quality of life of employees. Conversely, telecommuting will help resurrect local services in residential areas. While this might sound like a contradictory message, the two can be synergistic - smaller central office with hot-desking and employees working from home. Proper green travel planning will cut private car journeys by encouraging public transport, cycling and walking schemes. Even wildlife areas can be built into the city centre - there are bee hives on the roof of Fenwick's department store on Newcastle's Northumberland Street (don't get me started on bee facts).

By chance I'm off to Stockholm tomorrow to the European Green Capitals conference - the host city having won the European accolade. Blogging and tweeting will depend on my access to t'internet, but I hope to share what I learn.

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29 September 2010

It's the economy, stupid

Back in the early 1980s, I persuaded my parents to part with the princely sum of £399.00 for a BBC Micro Model B. My initial reaction was to feel a bit let down - all that white-heat-of-technology talk around home computers and the best thing this one could do was putting you in charge of a crudely realised kingdom with a river, fields and mountains (at least until Elite came out, but that's another matter...). At today's prices, that £399.00 could buy you four, yes, four, iPhone 4 handsets, each with about a million times more processing capability and a cornucopia of sci-fi type technology (video, maps, access to vast stores of information) that the 11 year old me would never have dreamed of.

So what has this got to do with green business? Well it demonstrates a number of basic economic principles - new technology starts off expensive until a mixture of economy of scale and innovation makes it accessible to all. But reading some accounts, you would think that renewables, to take an example, were exempt from this rule. "They're too expensive" we keep hearing. Only because they are the exception, rather than the rule. Already, with demand increasing and manufacturing shifting to China and India, prices of solar panels and wind turbines are starting to drop.

By the way, I'm not saying that offshoring manufacturing is a good or bad thing per se, just that once again, in the economic world we live in, that's what happens and we shouldn't be surprised if it does.

Demand also derives technology improvements and recently we have seen breakthroughs in dye-based solar PV technology which could deliver lower costs, higher efficiency and lower carbon footprint. Likewise, electric vehicles are currently expensive, but that's because the extraordinarily lean supply chains that supply conventional vehicle manufacturers have not been built for electric vehicles yet. One manufacturer told me that an extra 1000 vehicles a year would cut his bill of material costs by 40%. 45% of the cost of an electric vehicle is the battery, so, given the innovations in mobile phone battery technology, we will eventually see massive improvements there.

The flip side of this is true too. I once sat through a presentation on a new biodiesel plant for the North East of England. I asked whether it would take waste oils as well as rape seed oil, but the presenter said that to make the economics of the plant would only stack up if they produced pharma-grade glycerol as a by-product so they needed to be very tight on the quality of raw materials. His company later went bust, allegedly because putting that amount of high grade glycerol on the market depressed the price. More supply, same demand = lower prices. Welcome to the real world.

I also have little patience for those who complain that environmental legislation or corporate social responsibility will cost business or the economy money. Hold on, what's a cost? It's an income for someone else in the economy - it's not lost. Environmental legislation protects the world we live in and creates new markets. What's not to like?

Whether or not you like the economy we live in, we live in it and that's a fact. If you run, or want to run, a green business, you'll quickly find you're not exempt.

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22 January 2010

Better Place EV Battery Swap

While doing some background research on new low carbon business opportunities for The Green Executive, I came across a demonstration video for Better Place's automatic electric vehicle battery swap technology. The idea is that instead of having to wait a long time to charge your batteries, you simply swap your depleted battery pack for a charged one. This condenses recharge hours into a couple of minutes (it's slightly sped up in the video).

The business model will mean EV owners don't actually own the batteries, rather that they purchase a power service instead - a neat example of a product service system. It is exactly this sort of innovation which will thrive in a low carbon economy.

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13 January 2010

Smart Grids for Idiots

This morning I was reading the usual batch of letters to my local paper on how terrible renewable energy is, how global warming is a myth, blah blah blah - the usual reheated zombie arguments. And this morning the old myth that renewables need 100% backup from fossil fuels reared its ugly head once again.

After reading The Solar Economy during the summer, I've become fascinated with how a solar powered economy would work in practice. I got an hint of how this works when I visited EAE Ltd this summer. They use power from their wind turbine directly by day and then at night use it to charge their electric forklift truck. This is a very simple form of energy management that spreads the peak of consumption across 24 hours - using the forklift battery to capture renewable energy when it is available for use during the day.

A smart grid would do this on a much larger scale. The grid would link lots of generators, large and small, using a range of generation technology - microhydro, solar PV, wind, biomass CHP etc - with lots of users - commercial, residential and electric vehicle owners. Some of those users would also have storage facilities - most notably electric vehicle owners. The smart bit of the grid would control the balance between generation, storage and use and manage the flow of money between them. When supply exceeded demand, the price per unit would drop and the storage facilities would charge up. When demand exceeded supply, those owners of storage facilities could opt to sell energy back to the grid at a premium. This optimisation of supply and demand would lower peak demand, so any backup required would only have to cover a much lower essential demand.

There are interesting proposals for how this could work in practice. You could be driving your electric car and the energy management system would advise you to charge up in the next hour at a certain charging point (identified by GPS) as prices were low. Later you could be sat at your desk at work and receive a text from your car outside advising you to sell some of its stored energy while prices were high, leaving enough charge to get home. Some estimate that, by selling such services to the grid, electric vehicles could become a source of income rather than a drain on your resources.


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