Monthly Archives: September 2013

The proposed Sunpower Programme – is hydrogen the missing link?

Sir David King, a former UK government chief scientific adviser, and the respected economist Lord Richard Layard, are both proposing a worldwide Sunpower Programme to replace carbon fuels with solar energy in an article in the Observer online (29 Sept 2013). The aim of the programme would be to reach an economic tipping point in 2025 when the unit price of energy from solar becomes cheaper than from carbon fuel.

“The sun sends energy to the earth equal to about 5,000 times our total energy needs. It is inconceivable that we cannot collect enough of this energy for our needs, at a reasonable cost”, they are quoted as saying.

The article goes on to discuss how they acknowledge that a number of scientific breakthroughs will be needed to make cheap solar energy a global prospect. In particular, the report states, “scientists will have to find ways to reduce the cost of transmitting electricity from areas of high luminosity and low land value to the major population centres of the world. This will require new materials that are much better at conducting electricity, without loss of power, than present methods. This would be a major aim of the new solar energy programme.”

The premise is fundamentally right in two ways. Firstly, solar energy is our planet’s only sustainable source of energy, and along with consumption rebalancing, it will provide a sound way forward. Secondly, poorer countries and communities living nearer the world’s equator stand to gain economically from capturing and selling solar energy.

However, maybe masses of pylons heading north (or a breakthrough replacement for energy transmission the scientists envisage) is not the best business model.

We should also consider what hydrogen has to offer as a means of transporting rather than transmitting solar-sourced energy. The attractions include using fuel cells to generate electricity at the point of consumption, both static for buildings and mobile for vehicles. Consumed in cities, whether using fuel cells or otherwise, it produces only heat and water. Hydrogen can be generated by a number of small and large scale methods, including using microbes in sunlight as well as in passing electricity through water.

But when you look at the physics of hydrogen it can be pretty horrible to handle. It will corrode steel pipes, unlike fossil fuel gases. It has to be incredibly cold before it becomes a liquid. It is usually transported at ultra-high pressure. When it burns you cannot see the flame. And in an accidental release it tends to explode rather than gently burn.

Not good news, you might think. But perhaps this horrible-ness is a strength. It means that micro production and micro transportation will be needed, favouring small and independent suppliers above the big energy companies. Of course, monopolies will tend to form, but they will have physics working against them. Small, independent solar energy firms could create and pump hydrogen into portable canisters which can then be shipped directly to markets as required and returned empty to any producer for refilling. Refuelling a car would mean replacing a small canister, around 5kg, so large, dangerous tanks of high-pressure hydrogen at filling stations in urban areas are not needed. Early adopters will not need to wait for a vast network of filling stations to be built, they just keep a spare canister in the boot (trunk). Full canisters could be sold at existing petrol (gasoline) stations, hardware shops and supermarkets.

All this technology already exists. Innovation in the energy sector is not so much about new discoveries, inventions, processes. It is much more about new business models that make use of existing knowledge, becoming mainstream because economically or culturally their time has come. In 1761 the Bridgewater Canal was started, connected the centre of Manchester to a coal mine in Worsley and halving the price of energy in the city. This development of having boats of coal pulled by horses would have been understood by Julius Caesar. But the industrial revolution required it, so it happened then. Now is the time for solar energy, and we may have more tools in our box than we realise.


Labour’s energy policy and community ownership

The energy companies are reported to be unhappy with Labour’s policy announcement yesterday of a 20-month price freeze. There are claims that the needed replacement infrastructure will be jeopardised, such as new power stations.

This is possibly an opportunity to start a path back from ‘energy companies’ to ‘utilities’, an incremental approach. Similarly to the train franchising system, there could a public sector utility company in the wings ready to step in and run failing services, as currently on the East Coast mainline.

For a start, this not for profit utility company could build new power stations, pipelines, etc, and then lease them to the energy companies at a fair rate. It would provide certainty of supply and be in the national interest.

The energy companies are also not being very clear about how much the Labour policy will save them with the abolition of payments into ECO – the Energy Companies Obligation – to pay for better insulation for poorer people.

This is an opaque area of public funding, but while social housing and poor owner occupiers have seen some improvements in their home insulation, poor households in the private rented sector have been left behind, out in the cold, and the worst landlords need to be faced up to and dealt with.

Eulogy to CUBE and to CCI in Manchester and Salford (c.1999 to 2013)

In Manchester, the CUBE Gallery (the Centre for the Urban Built Environment) and CCI (the Centre for Construction Innovation) were two sides of the same coin, together promoting excellence in the design and construction of cities and towns. Based at 115-7 Portland Street, Manchester, thousands have passed through the doors for exhibitions, talks, seminars, meetings, launches, videos, even poetry.

After fourteen years, both are about to close.

This is not a potted history, though someone should surely pull that one together. Rather, as someone who worked at CCI for five years it is my eulogy. I had hoped that great words would have come from on high. But I hope these few words at least help a little.

The cause of the built environment, of sustainable cities, is not an easy one to promote now. The credit crunch hit the property and construction sectors hardest of all. And then for these two organisations, which in their prime days were sponsored by the University of Salford, the cuts in higher education tore away the last harbour wall that was protecting these two bedraggled ships. Manchester has already seen Urbis transform into the National Football Museum, subject to much the same economic forces.

At its best, CUBE and CCI wove a spell which brought together designers, architects, engineers, planners, builders, politicians, urban academics, community workers and many others, to hear each others’ stories and to learn together. If it had one slogan, it was collaborative working. Not blaming the ‘other’ profession when things were not good enough. Sure, we tricked the architects to visit the gallery while hoodwinking the engineers with a seminar of graphs, but we knew they would soon stumble across each other and realise they had a shared passion in making great places.

A diversity of backgrounds and outlooks, it has to be said, that was reflected in the CCI and CUBE staff teams, producing some watercooler moments which were pure theatre.

We pushed Passivhaus before it became, thankfully, fashionable. We promoted best practice clubs in each of the five counties, roughly, across the North West of England. We provided a venue where officials from the Treasury could speak directly to a built environment audience, and without charging, not excluding anyone from being able to speak their truth directly to power. We connected small and medium construction firms with major programmes such as Network Rail.

We had our low points too. When half a dozen staff decamped together around December 2011, and the legal tussle they had with the university afterwards, it was hard for those of us left not to think that ‘the high ups’ generally were only interested in counting the cutlery.

But our heyday was bright. A full gallery on a launch evening with people spilling out on to the pavement. A packed seminar room, standing at the back, while a key speaker holds the room spellbound. A calendar of events which was the envy of organisations three times our size. The chance to walk around a newly-built inner-city school and hear from the builders how they had applied an idea they had learnt from us.

I know in my bones that in a few years time some working group of bright young things will say, “Hey guys, we need a place for the urban built environment, for sustainable cities, a sort of neutral space where ideas can ferment, paths can cross, not for profit and open minded …”

So, it is not goodbye, but see you soon.

A free copy of the ERDF Independent Guide, 2nd Edition (pro bono)

The first edition was also available as a paperback, but the PDF version has been more popular, not least because it was free I suspect.

So, updated as a second edition, please feel free to download and make full use of this guide.

As ever, all feedback is welcome, and its not for resale.



ERDF – An Independent Guide, 2nd Edition, 2013, by Tony Baldwinson

Universal Credit – some lessons from using computers to calculate benefits in the 1980s

In the early days of home and office computers in the 1980s there was a voluntary and community sector national working group that looked at possible socially useful applications for these new machines, of which I was a member.

One surviving trace of our work was a published report on how to use these new word processors to print multi-lingual letters and leaflets in the non-Latin scripts used by people in Asian communities.

The other key piece of work we followed was the potential for these new computers to provide welfare rights advice, sadly not also reported at the time (unless colleagues have better records than mine).

On the face of it it looked so easy. There were quite a few welfare rights services which produced a poster every year with the current benefit rates, a bit like a large menu. You could look for your circumstances and fairly easily get a sense of how much money you could expect to receive, such a single parent with two children, one being disabled. It looked so easy to convert this ‘menu’ of benefit rates into a computer program. It should just be a simple logic tree of yes / no questions for someone sitting at the computer to answer until the program gets to the grand total.

However, the more we looked at it, the worse it got. Because behind this simple menu was a massively complicated rule book, one that welfare rights advisors kept partly in their heads and partly in large folders on a shelves. Citizens Advice Bureaux had a system of a nationally standardised filing cabinet if I remember correctly, one in each centre and updated by post.

We started with the simplest benefit at the time, Child Benefit, which was pretty much £x per child plus £y for the first child. But even this had something like 30 rules which had to be applied. Our working group soon concluded that our goal of a “welfare rights calculator” was an over-optimistic approach, and that more trained people were the best way forward.

So, roughly 25 years on, what are the lessons for the Universal Credit project to unify welfare benefits into one monthly payment, synchronised with any earnings received that month?

Well, one big change has been the growth of self-adjusting algorithms and of probability systems. Many large computer systems now use their own (secret) algorithms to decide everything from ranking Google web searches to Wonga credit worthiness. These systems have the advantage that they self-adapt, and the better systems also can spot trends early such that minority requests are not automatically disregarded. These probabilistic systems are highly sophisticated, often working with over 200 factors to arrive at a decision.

So, my conclusion here is that Universal Credit would work better as a probabilistic algorithm than as a deterministic rules machine. This would basically retain the underlying welfare benefits and their rules as applied, but get it roughly right very quickly and then smooth out the cash-flow. So, a single parent renting a flat at £a a month with two toddlers and an elderly parent would typically get £x a month based on thousands of people just like them. Safety limits would make no payment less than £b without a human authorisation. The rest is adjusted as you go along, and future claimants gain an improved service from the learning involved.

It would be introduced as a shadow scheme, sucking up data from the various current live benefits schemes to build up its knowledge base, and providing the opportunity for officials to “dummy run” the program to check it against real claims. I feel this is more ethical than trying the Universal Credit machine live on people, albeit in limited circumstances to start with.

Perhaps the political disadvantage is that the underlying benefits regimes remain as inputs, with a continuing resource cost. However, from the 1980s experience, the idea of a deterministic machine that can automate the entire benefits system without any catastrophic failure (such as people starving) was old-fashioned even then, as we found out, and as shown by the different path subsequently taken by leading commercial computing organisations.