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15 May 2017

Digitisation, smart grids and cyberwarfare

digital clock

One of the basic principles of pragmatic environmentalism is to embrace digitisation as a way of managing resources much more efficiently and dealing with the intermittency of some renewable energy sources via the smart grid. Another trope of the green movement is the inherent safety of renewables – flying a plane into a wind farm isn't going to have the impact of flying a plane into a nuclear power station.

However, last week's cyber-attack on the UK's National Health Service is a harsh reminder that warfare, terrorism and crime have also embraced digitisation for nefarious purposes. While this attack was designed for financial gain, what would happen if a foreign power or terrorist group aimed an attack at an intelligent energy grid? After all, Iran's nuclear programme was targeted via the Stuxnet virus in 2010, destroying 20% of the country's centrifuges.

We cannot shy away from this threat, but on the other hand, we cannot afford to keep our energy, industrial and commercial systems in the 20th century while we are fighting climate change. In the same way the internet was originally designed to be inherently robust to a physical attack, all our digital systems need to have sufficient protection, firewalls and redundancy that if one link in the chain fails, the rest continues on regardless, working around the damage.

That's some challenge, and, of course, a massive business opportunity for somebody.


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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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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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23 July 2014

Mind the Credibility Gap

ants bridge

I'm continuing to plough my way through the background information from a sustainability training course I'm reviewing for a client and it's throwing up all kinds of interesting nuggets. One sustainability primer produced by a major NGO caught my eye.

The first section was a description of different sustainability definitions - the Brundtland definition, The Natural Step and the Forum for the Future Five Capitals Model. All very high level and philosophical.

The second section said the starting point of tackling sustainability was to engage stakeholders, with some good suggestions of who to consult and how to go about it.

And the third section said... um, well, no, there was no third section. That was it.

So this primer told us we face humongous, existential challenges and have to completely redesign the way we think about society, but the only tool it gave us to tackle them is a suggestion to talk to people we know about it.

I had an immediate flashback to the Live Earth concerts in 2007 where we were given apocalyptic accounts of the potential impacts of climate change - and then urged to turn of our phone chargers at night to 'do our bit.' Or all those books which describe the world's problems in great detail and then in the last chapter offer incredibly vague and untested solutions to actually solve them.

People aren't daft. If you tell them there's a huge problem but proffer trivial or ill-defined solutions, they simply won't believe you are credible - and rightly so.

If you want to tackle sustainability properly - whether at a global level or in an organisation - you not only have to describe the problem but to break it down into its constituent parts and sketch out solutions which are commensurate with the problem such as the circular economy, smart grid technology, the digital economy, etc etc etc.

It's good to talk - and I make a living out of it - but make sure you don't fall into the credibility gap by having nothing meaningful to talk about.


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15 March 2013

Green is Cool.

Jimi HendrixHome cleaning products company Method has announced new packaging made from recycled plastic. So what? Well the plastic comes from the ocean, not only saving resources but protecting wildlife and the ocean ecosystem to boot. That's cool.

Waste company Veolia processes road sweepings to recover precious metals like platinum, palladium and rhodium - mining the urban environment rather than the earth's core. That's pretty cool too.

A project at my old group CLEMANCE found that it was technically possible to recover iron oxide pollution from streams and convert it into rewritable CDs and DVDs. How cool would that be?

And another CLEMANCE project led to 300,000 tomato plants growing under glass using waste heat and carbon dioxide from a chemical plant to accelerate growth. I think that's pretty damn cool.

The solar hot water panel on my roof pre-heats the water going into my combo-boiler so we get low carbon hot water without losing the on-demand convenience. Again, cool.

If I cycle rather than taking the car then I get my exercise as well as transport. If I work from home, I get to see my young family grow up and avoid the nightmare of commuting. If I use local services, I see much more of my friends and neighbours. All of this is very cool.

Smart grid technology creates the possibility of opening up the energy production and storage system to everybody buying and selling to the grid and breaking the economic and political grip of Big Oil. To me, my friend, that would be very cool indeed.

Green is cool.

So why do we persist in presenting it as hairshirt, pious asceticism - and wonder why people won't embrace it?

Let's chill out, man. Be cool.


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29 June 2012

Sustainability Champions, Subsidy Junkies and Green Canoeing

I gave two keynote speeches this week: one at The Value of Sustainability organised by Newcastle University Business School and TADEA, the other at the Energy & Environment North East 2012 conference. Events like these are great for producing debate and stimulating thinking, so I thought I'd share.

For the former event I was on familiar ground on corporate sustainability, concluding the following:

  • “Go Green Save Money is for Amateurs” - it is now a matter of competitive advantage;
  • Sustainability is going mainstream - into products, processes and cultures;
  • Litmus test is: what are you going to stop doing?
  • Stretch yourself and think different;
  • Ultimately about leadership rather than management.

During one the other sessions, I challenged the idea of 'sustainability champions' - asking what do you expect these guys to do and how do you expect them to do it? No-one had a clear answer, which reinforced my belief that the "champions" approach is usually taken up because other people do it, rather than having a clear role in mind.

At the EENE 2012 conference, I was covering the political slot after a local MP had pulled out. This gave me a chance to pontificate freely on "The World According to Gareth" and, in particular:

  • We appear to be in the oil/fossil fuel endgame - not a matter of "low carbon or growth" as the Treasury may think so much as "low carbon or stagnation";
  • The democratisation of energy production with renewables means we are entering the brave new world of Energy 2.0 - much in the way Web 2.0 revolutionised the internet;
  • Energy 2.0 presents us with a range of challenges which translate into business opportunities;
  • Green sector businesses are not charities: they must deal with uncertainties and must not become subsidy junkies;
  • Top politicians (ie Prime Ministers) need to show more leadership (I had some fun with the fact that the only UK PM to make a big green speech was Margaret Thatcher).

Given that I was talking to an audience from the environmental sector, the most controversial phrase I put in the speech was "subsidy junkies." I strongly believe that thinking that you are due public subsidy because you are 'doing good' leads to what I might euphemistically describe as less than robust business planning. Subsidies should only be used to ease the way over the initial barriers to mature markets, rather than being used as a life support system.

No one threw anything, no one walked out. Only one person challenged me on this in a later talk, arguing that subsidies represented the internalisation of external costs from "brown" energy. He was in turn asked from the floor whether this shouldn't be done by altering the tax system, rather than by direct handout. He thought no, I would say emphatically yes.

My favourite case study of the year so far was presented just before my slot. To get ready for the Olympics, the canoe slalom at the Tees Barrage needed to be upgraded with pumps so the flow could be kept artificially high if the river flow dropped. The civil engineers, Patrick Parsons, turned this problem into an opportunity. By installing four two-way archimedes screws, the barrage could generate energy when the river's flow exceeded what was required, then switch and pump water back upstream when that flow fell below the minimum to give it a boost. Overall the system would export a net of 100,000 kWh of clean hydro energy a year and extend the operating hours of the course, facilitating the Olympics and improving its long-term financial performance. Superb.


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13 June 2012

Are we on the cusp of Energy 2.0?

The Facebook/Twitter/Flickr/YouTube/Wordpress revolution of the last 5-7 years has famously been dubbed Web 2.0. Web 1.0 was like a huge electronic catalogue of information to be searched and read. This content was generated by a relatively small number of producers and consumed by a huge number of surfers.

The Web 2.0 revolution lead users to generate the content, democratising the process. The emerging big players stood back from the frontline, instead providing the framework within which that content was stored, catalogues and distributed - and made handsome rewards doing so.

There is a clear analogy here with energy. In traditional energy systems, let's call it Energy 1.0, a small number of producers keep a tight control on the flow of primary energy sources (gas, oil, coal) and distribute it to a large number of consumers. The rise of domestic microgeneration, farm based renewables and the adoption of renewable technologies by non-energy industries has started to wrestle the 'ownership' of energy from the few and handing it to the many. You could call it Energy 2.0.

Digging a little deeper into the analogy, the people who are making most money out of Web 2.0 are the providers of the platforms for content, not the content generators. If Energy 2.0 follows the same route, the big money will be made by those providing the storage, distribution and co-ordination of that energy - ie the semi-mythical Smart Grid. So who will become the big player, the YouVolt or the Wattr of Energy 2.0?

And the big fossil fuel industry? They could soon end up like the newspapers of today - declining circulation, no sustainable income streams in the new set up and abandoned by their political friends. The fossilised fuel industry.

Where the analogy falls down, of course, is in reliability of supply. If Twitter or Facebook went down for a few minutes, all you'd end up with is a couple of million smartphone users with itchy fingers. If the energy system went down, everything stops. The democratic and redundant nature of the internet allows the new providers to come and go, but it still took decades for the system to mature enough for Web 2.0. But then again, the smart grid could emulate the resilience of the internet, passing energy along random routes from generator to storage to consumer.

But with renewables hitting a new record of peaking at 50% of Germany's electricity consumption one day last month, and record investment in renewables (2011 saw 6 times as much investment as 2004), and the UK Government keen to break up the stranglehold of "the big six" electricity, we could be on the brink of something big.


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16 May 2012

Who owns solar energy?

I saw this cartoon on Facebook last week and it made me giggle. Then it made me think.

While it is primarily a pop at the conservative instincts of the traditional energy sector, the more I thought about it, the more it resonated with deeper issues such as:

1. Renewable energy is completely different from other forms of energy as it is intrinsically democratic - supply of fuel cannot be exclusively auctioned off to the highest bidder by Governments - which means anyone can take part.

2. This is a massive threat to the traditional sector as their strengths in economies of scale and economic/political heft do not confer the advantages they used to.

3. It also means the barrier to entry is much lower - hence as all those individual householders claiming Feed In Tariff on their solar energy elbowing their way into the energy business. Move over EDF, Mrs Miggins of Acacia Avenue is selling these electrons.

4. Without their aces, can Big Energy compete in the unfolding new energy world? Or will they become the fossilised energy industry as I have predicted?

5. This is very exciting. This is Energy 2.0 which opens up masses of possibilities just as Web 2.0 did.

6. But, without that economic firepower, who is going to invest in the infrastructure such as the smart grid and storage facilities required to manage a new democratic system? How will they earn a return on that investment? Who will police it?



Cartoon © Mike Peters - reproduced under "fair use"

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18 April 2012

Book Review: The Third Industrial Revolution by Jeremy Rifkin

International energy adivsor Jeremy Rifkin's newish book The Third Industrial Revolution has been getting quite a lot of attention in the press, so I thought I'd better give it a read. Rifkin's central thesis is that the second industrial revolution - the rise of the oil & gas economy which superseded the original, coal-fired industrial revolution - has entered its endgame and a new, distributed energy strategy is required to get the world out of its current economic and environmental fix. While we cling to the oil economy, Rifkin argues, climate change will become dangerous and rising prices will smother any economic recovery.

Rifkin calls his vision for a new approach to energy 'lateral power' - a kind of Energy 2.0 (to coin a phrase) which will adopt the distributed and participative economic model we see in the digital economy. There are five pillars to his vision:

1. A big shift to renewable energy

2. Transforming building stock to micro-power

3. Hydrogen economy and other energy storage systems

4. An 'internet of energy' to allow trading between individuals, companies and countries (ie a smart grid)

5. A shift in transport to electric and fuel cell vehicles

A subtext of the book is that the US should become more like Europe in its approach to the economy (probably more like Germany to be specific), which may raise eyebrows across the pond given the current political discourse. Rifkin clearly enjoys his access to top international politicians such as Angela Merkel. In fact his name dropping can get a tad wearing at times - although it is leavened with his rather blunt assessments of those who 'don't get it' - President Obama, David Miliband and Ed Miliband are on the list - and those who do, some of whom may surprise some readers, such as UK Premier David Cameron. Those on the 'don't get it' list are criticised not so much for a lack of interest, but for their inability to grasp the need for a distributed system - trying to build a renewable energy system on the centralised fossil fuel template just won't work.

This is a very interesting and thought provoking book. It has to be said that there is nothing particularly new in it from a conceptual point of view, in fact much of the 'lateral power' approach was sketched out by the late German MP (and father of the feed in tariff) Herman Scheer in his book The Solar Economy which was published more than a decade ago. But what Rifkin does very successfully is make a convincing case that the time for change has come given the economic and environmental challenges we currently face. And, let's face it, that's the vital message to get across to policy makers across the globe.

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5 April 2012

Greetings from (occasionally) sunny Northumberland

I'm away with family in Budle Bay in Northumberland - just south of Lindisfarne or Holy Island. Budle Bay is part of the Lindisfarne nature area and the estuary is a delight for birders - even my mediocre skills identified curlew, black headed gulls, greater black backed gulls, common gulls, red breatsed merganser, shelduck, mallard, widgeon, redshank, oyster catcher, pochard, kestrel, wheatear along with gazillions of plover-sized waders which are beyond my ken. We had some glorious, if windy and cold weather on Wednesday, but on Tuesday we had a blizzard - so we headed to the worlds best second hand bookstore, Barter Books at Alnwick, then to a soft play facility to let the kids work off their adrenaline.

We're staying in a rebuilt mill cottage at Waren Mill at the head of the bay, which, as the name suggests, had a number of mills dating from the 12th Century onwards. At the back of our garden the old mill race that fed water into the mills has been converted into a water feature which periodically kicks into life, creating a small waterfall. The bigger, more recent mill has been converted into holiday apartments too.

As I mentioned last week, I'm currently reading Jeremy Rifkin's Third Industrial Revolution which about the democratization and distribution of energy systems for a modern low carbon economy. It struck me that in the days of water power, this was very much how the economy worked - industry went where the energy was rather than the other way around. Of course Rifkin's vision is for a 21st Century version of distributed energy generation - creating a hi-tech internet of low carbon energy to get us out of the fossil fuel doom loop. But one interesting part of such a system is the potential for micro-hydro in locations such as this - tapping the same sources of clean energy that our forefathers did. So maybe, just maybe, places like Waren Mill will be going back to the future.

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20 January 2012

There's no such thing as too much renewable energy

There were stories in the press this month about £1.2m worth of 'constraint payments' made to Scottish wind farms over Christmas to not generate electricity when demand was low. These stories appear to have been placed by dodgy "think tanks" (read: propaganda machines) protesting about public subsidies going to renewables.

And I agree with them.

Sort of.

It is madness to pay to restrain renewable energy. We need as much renewable energy as we can get (here I diverge sharply from the propagandists), so what on earth are we doing saying "not now! take some cash"?

The money would be much better invested in smart grid technology and storage facilities. In a smart energy world such "excess" renewable energy would be used to cheaply charge electric vehicles and portable devices as well as distributed storage systems.

The problem is our thinking hasn't got past that of the 1930s. The grid we plug wind turbines into in the UK hasn't changed much since 1938. 1938! That grid was designed to distribute electricity from centralised power stations - a bit like television channels broadcast the same entertainment to lots of people. A sustainable energy system would be more like the internet than TV with energy entering, being stored, and accessed at different places and times by a wide variety of players. It's about time we brought energy into the internet age.

The wider point is our tendency to be hidebound by linear, incremental thinking - to innovate to the degree to tackle the sustainability challenge, we need to break free of business as usual.

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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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