Welsh Green Dragon

Are Google moving into the Energy Sector? by Chris Halpin

Not intent on being an online ‘power house’, it now seems that Google has its sights on becoming one in a more literal sense.

In what seems a very perceptive move, it’s been reported that Google have applied to create a subsidiary company in the US (imaginatively called ‘Google Energy‘) with which they can start trading energy on the open market. In entering this sector, it seems they are taking the future insecurity of energy supply into their own hands.  Some commentators are sceptical that Google Energy is a business move purely for the money, yet Google insist they are doing it for the more philanthropic reason of reaching carbon neutrality. Producing their own energy at their Californian HQ, this move will enable them to trade the excess created and pump it back into the grid. However, future investment in the renewable energy sector clearly makes keen business sense.

In all honesty I’ve been meaning to write this post for a few weeks and was initially going to discuss the role of smart meters and the UK government’s plans to roll these out by 2020. Like the previous post about boilers, smart meter systems are hardly the most glamorous of devices to discuss, so Google’s very recent movements into the energy sector has spiced the whole affair up a bit. This is especially because their innovative technologies make the UK utility companies plans look prehistoric even before the meter fitters have chucked their tools in the back of the van.

You’ve probably heard or seen in the UK media about how ‘smart meters’ are the future. The idea behind them is that in keeping tabs on our daily usage of Electricity or gas, we can curb how much we use and determine when we’re being wasteful. Our currently dubbed ‘dumb meters’ which require that quarterly annoyance of letting in the meter reader (or more often than not when our energy provider spuriously estimate your bill) means that as consumers we’re often paying over the odds for the energy we actually use. Imagine if they applied the same process to a contracted mobile phone – no itemised bill but instead a rough guess on how much you’ve been yapping on the phone for the past 3 months. That doesn’t seem to make any sense does it? Here’s a radio feature created by my colleague Jim Turner just before Christmas on this very subject .

So these so-called ‘smart meters‘ are meant to be the answer, but may not actually be that ‘smart’. They will cost between £85 -£100 for each household and work by sending usage data directly to the power company each day. However the technology they contain is not that up to date at all. They work by sending through how much energy you’ve used by SMS text message to your Utility Company who then use the data to create an itemised monthly bill. This mobile phone technology has been around for almost twenty years and for this reason the Energy sector in UK are having second thoughts on a nationwide meter upgrade.  They fear that by the time each and every home has been visited the smart meters will have become obsolete.

And this is where Google comes in hot on their respective heels. Smart meters are old news and now Google Powermeter is being heralded as the next big thing.This is in effect an online power monitoring tool which can be incorporated as a widget as part of your iGoogle home page. Initially developed to work with smart meters, Google have now in fact bypassed the need for them and work through a broadband connection rather than the aforementioned SMS technology. This means you don’t have to wait for your Utility company to process the information; the Google application will do it in near real time and you can check it online whenever you want. Clever eh? Here’s an example of how the data might look:

This is some way off for every customer in Wales though. Currently the only company who offer this service are first:utility and you do need a smart meter installed for it to work.

Being more energy-efficient is obviously inextricably linked to freeing up some more of our incomes. In years to come, if winters look set to be as harsh as this one, then we’re certainly going to have to trim on energy usage to avoid bankrupting ourselves to keep warm and watch the telly. For more tips on how you could save, check out Energy Circle’s 10 big ideas for home energy efficiency in 2010.

Boiler on the blink? Brave the blizzards and bag a bargain! by Chris Halpin

With what’s already been dubbed as the coldest winter in thirty years and sub-zero temperatures becoming the norm these past few weeks, the last thing you want is a boiler that’s on the blink. That said, if your house is anything like mine with the central heating blaring out at all hours to keep you toasty, you’re probably charging through oblivious like we are. Deep down inside of you is the terminal dread and a modicum of guilt to how much it’s all costing. But, hey who the hell cares when its -4°C and it’s like this outside?

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I may be ‘as snug as a bug in a rug’ as I write this but unfortunately I bet many of us will be in for a nasty surprise when our next quarter’s gas bill drops through the letterbox. Such a cheery thought.

So with that in mind, although it is completely irrelevant to me as I don’t own my own bricks and mortar yet, I still found it fairly interesting to see that the government has a trick up its sleeve to help us save energy  [money]. Perversely by spending some more and shelling out a couple of grand buying ourselves new boilers. Yesterday Prime Minister Gordon Brown launched a boiler scrappage scheme similar to the one the government employed to help the flailing motor industry last year. First mooted at the start of December it has created quite a buzz within the industry. To qualify you need an inefficient boiler deemed as  G-rated (usually meaning it’s over 15 years old) and you can then trade it in to the tune of £400 off your new shiny one. Landlords up and down the country will be pleased to learn they can get in on the action too.

Now I’m not going to deny it, boiler talk is certainly not sexy. I’m not even going to attempt to pretend that it is. I remember when I was studying for my Bachelors Degree in Architecture I had to endure an entire hour and a half long lecture on the different types of boiler and heating systems one could choose, their efficiency ratings, values this, values that… blah blah blah. It bored me to tears. Sufficed to say I’m not in that industry anymore, yet the boilers have come back to haunt me. However, if it’s good for the environment then I suppose for one post only I can become slightly enthused about our unsung household heroes. And the boiler is a tireless workhorse – it’s only when it lets you down that you ever really notice the arduous blighter, and then you curse it, poor thing.

So then swiftly back to the point. This scheme is estimated to be costing the government around £50 million pounds and aswell as ridding households of inefficient gas guzzling monsters that help rack up our gas bills, it will also keep around 130,000 boiler fitters in employment. It will presumably mean too that companies like Worcester Bosch, Baxi and Calor are now breathing a huge sigh of relief. Not only the manufacturers will be onto a winner though; energy companies like British Gas are expected to use the scheme to drum up new business. As the biggest installer of boilers in the UK they are looking set to match the government’s £400 discount alongside NPower who like British Gas are offering the same discount.

You might be thinking – well why bother? The Energy Saving Trust reckon about 3.5 million homes in the UK have the least efficient G-Rated boilers. An easy way to determine whether you have such a beast of a boiler is if it has a permanently lit pilot light – if it does then I’m afraid it should be out with the old and in with the new. Another way of checking is to go through this simple online boiler checklist. As 14% of the UK’s carbon emissions come from domestic heating, this is an obvious way parliament can coax us to be more efficient and for them to reach their targets. Cynicism aside – you could save up to £200 a year on your energy costs so you don’t need me to tell you that’s no bad thing.

So as we look set for at least a few more weeks of slippery pavements and icy roads, get your boiler checked out and imagine what it’d be like if it gave up on you right now. But you better be quick – the offer is only open to the first 125,000, so out of the 3 and a half million suspected dodgy boilers – thats  a potential 3,375,000 households who could literally be left out in the cold. Or should that be left in in the cold.

Protesters blockade Port Talbot Biomass Plant by Chris Halpin

It seems the guys at Climate Camp Cymru have been at work again, this time at the Western Wood Biomass plant in Port Talbot. Three people were arrested after climate change activists used bicycle locks to chain themselves to the gates of the wood burning plant to prevent the hourly 20 tonne wood chip delivery that is required to keep it in operation. Others scaled the chimney revealing a banner saying ‘Clean Energy:Dirty Joke’ in Welsh.

Biomass could be a viable answer to contribute to a more sustainable way of producing energy, but only if the wood for burning is sustainably sourced or recycled from horticultural waste.The plant at Port Talbot is a smaller ‘pilot’ plant which if deemed successful will pave the way for two larger sites to be developed in Wales. One will be a £400 million plant close by which will burn wood that can provide power for up to 500,000 homes, with construction set to start next year. Another proposed is in Holyhead where Anglesey aluminium wants a facility to burn wood for the smelting process.

At the moment all wood sourced for the Port Talbot plant comes from sources in the UK, but campaigners believe that with the introduction of larger plants, timber would have to be imported from overseas where it would be harder to guarantee it has come from a sustainable source.

Undercurrents Alternative News produced this package on the latest protest.

One campaigner, Ioan Gwyn, 29 said: “The power companies said the wood will come from sustainable sources but the reality is very different. In 2008 about 9 million hectares of industrial tree plantations have been certified as sustainable despite evidence of their devastating effects on people and the environment [1]. These plantations are in fact green deserts: they consume vast amounts of water and are empty of native wildlife.”

It seems like somewhat of a paradox that biomass energy has been feted as a renewable energy source. As with biofuels, it is only truly renewable if the combustible material is waste from other uses. Smaller scale community based biomass projects harvesting vegetation waste like the BedZED development in South London have even had their problems. Questions must then be raised on the ethics behind scaling up such a process for mass energy production. For the companies involved it will obviously have to be an industrially lucrative venture, but at what expense?

Rob Goodsell, 33 said, “The Port Talbot and Holyhead biomass plants will require an area of dedicated biomass plantations half the size of Wales. A land area this size could feed up to a third of the population of Britain. With the world facing serious food security issues in coming years this is crazy.”

Seemingly the bigger the beast, the bigger the feast.

[1] “Can we trust the FSC?” the Ecologist: http://www.theecologist.org/trial_investigations/325243/can_we_trust_the_fsc.html

Windfarms get go ahead from locals in the valleys by Chris Halpin

So it seems the people in the valleys of the Cynon, Rhondda, Afan and Neath valleys are Y.I.M.B.Y’s?

The not in my back yarders must be a little miffed as it seems this time they are in the minority, after an independent survey has revealed that only 1 in 10 people were against wind farms being developed.

The survey was carried out by BMG Research on behalf of Nuon Renewables who are planning to construct wind turbines near Pen-y-Cymoedd.

All the stats can be found in the Western Mail’s online article from last week but the most interesting is that 73% of people are in favour of more wind energy but with 63% percent fully backing wind farms. What does this mean exactly? Whats the difference? A bit dubious that one.

It’s all certainly at odds with last months news in the South Wales Argus that residents were not consulted about Tesco’s plans to erect two turbines at their store in Newport. Check out the comments on the article, it certainly ruffled a few feathers.

Regardless of that case, could the acceptance of the more isolated valley communities mean that public feeling towards wind turbines is changing, or are people just indifferent? What could be the reason behind it? Maybe its internet based campaigns which have cast this renewable energy source in a more favourable light? Plus if big companies and brands are beginning to back the use of wind and appear sustainable, then psychologically people may think, ‘Well if its good enough for them then its good enough for us’.

Some of my colleagues studying the Postgraduate Diploma in Magazine Journalism ventured north to gauge public opinion in Aberdare for themselves.

I think it would be much easier for people to stomach if the wind farms became community projects or co-operatives. When fuel prices start to rocket perhaps more wind farm co-operative projects like the West Mill Farm in Oxfordshire formed in 2006 or the Baywind project in Cumbria which goes back to 1996, will become more commonplace.

It certainly is important to dispel some of the myths that surround wind turbines, with regard to noise and also the public fearing the safety of birds – why would the RSPB back wind farms if that were the case? I could not comment on the noise as I am yet to get up close and personal with a wind turbine, although it is definitely on my list of things to do (that makes me sound a little bit like a train spotter!). Its all about personal opinion, and the press seem to be filling many column inches with arguments for and against our move as a nation to utilises the renewable power of the wind.

Environment Minister calls for fundamental lifestyle change by tanyamercer
November 27, 2009, 9:35 am
Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Environment, Future Thinking

The Environment Minister has said people in Wales must make a fundamental lifestyle change to tackle climate problems.

Jane Davidson says Wales is not doing enough towards sustainability. Evidence from scientists and economists shows taking action now will cost us less than taking action in the future.

Talking at the recent Welsh Green Heroes event, the Assembly Mininster told me that everyone needs to think about their way of life to ensure they are as energy efficient as possible.

Listen to the full interview here.

First ever Welsh Green List by tanyamercer
November 24, 2009, 5:47 pm
Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Environment, Future Thinking

An exhibition showcasing Wales’ green heroes is currently travelling across the country.

The Welsh Green List celebrates people who are working towards sustainability across the country. It’s the first of its kind, and organisers hope it will inspire others to take action against climate change. 

There are 52 green heroes on the list – one for each week of the year.  And all of them have been judged as a ‘champion’ who deserves recognition for tackling sustainability and climate change.  The idea is to celebrate the work of environmentally-minded people in communities across Wales, and then to inspire and motivate others to follow their example.

The list profiles all sorts of people, including school children, business people, community workers, teachers and musicians.  There are also some well-known names, including the Environment Minister Jane Davidson and Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales.

At the launch event I spoke to organiser Helen Nelson, executive director of Cynnal Cymru Sustain Wales, to find out more about this unique award.

The list comes from a nationwide hunt, which started back in the early summer.  People across Wales were asked to think of green champions in their own communities and nominate them to feature in the Green List. The nominations were then short-listed by a panel of representatives from the business, media, voluntary and sustainable development sectors. 

The judging criteria centres on sustainability and people who are ‘building a healthy, happy and fair society’. So the chosen green heroes are not just stereotypical environmentalists.  They are ordinary people, from any background, making a difference to their communities.

Judges told me the idea is to show that green issues aren’t just something you read about in the paper or watch on TV.  They’re about real people, real lives and making Wales a better place.

To help promote the list, Cynnal Cymru has launched a new film and photographic exhibition profiling some of the green champions.  It shows what different people are doing in their quest for sustainability.  

The exhibition will tour across Wales over the next six months. It has now opened at Bridgend. It will then move on to Neath Port Talbot and Rhondda in December and January.

The people on this list are quite extraordinary.  Some have dedicated their whole existence to sustainable living. And, without doubt, the idea behind the list is well considered.  But there continues to be a denial among many people across Wales as to the need to change our lives to be more sustainable. I hope the exhibition will prove very popular and a great success in inspiring people to ‘do their bit’ for the environment.

But the cynic in me worries that even if people visit the exhibition, their admiration and good intentions will quickly turn down the normal road to denial and a reluctance to give up the luxuries and simplicity of their current lives to save the world. 

I hope I’m wrong.
To find out more information on the exhibition and to read profiles of the Welsh Green heroes, visit the Cynnal Cymru Sustain Wales website.

(What should be) A welcome short term solution… by catherinegraham4

It was honestly quite disheartening to hear Jan Cliff, founder and director of Sundance Renewables, talk despondently about her struggle to launch biofuels in Wales. A not-for-profit social enterprise, aiming to increase welsh involvement in renewable energy systems, continues its hard work to develop biodiesel and to see it succeed as a legitimate option for running vehicles. Sundance Renewables is Wales’ premier biodiesel producer and has achieved a great deal since starting out but this, apparently, is still not enough.

Their mission is counter balanced mainly by the problem of finding a platform on which to market and distribute the product. Jan explained how the political side is also a large boulder blocking the sun and that the ignorance and disinterest on the legal side is clear: “Some politicians do not even have a clue that vegetable oil can be used for biodiesel.”

Jan emphasised how this issue of renewable fuels should have been attacked over the last 30 years yet it has just not been confronted in the right way. Besides the legalities, the battle lies in getting communities on side: people are embarrassed of filling up with biodiesel as they see it as second rate in some way. How has it developed this bad name? Can we blame the media for this?

Also, people in general do not even consider the issue of biodiesel because we have enough petrol right now to allow us to plod along as we are. There is a worry that until somebody actually stands up and announces that petrol has officially run out, the general public will be content with the current situation.

Petrol and diesel are non renewable petroleum fuels. They are NOT going to last forever and biodiesel could really become an essential transport fuel in the future, even if it were just to provide a stop-gap. Perhaps people should really sit up and think about this. One day these biofuels will be essential and Sundance Renewables will be something of a gold mine. Why wait? As Jan so rightly puts it “the stone age did not come to an end because we ran out of stones. The petroleum age has to end before we run out of petrol.”

Contact Jan at jan@sundancerenewables.org.uk

View the website at www.sundancerenewables.org.uk