Andrew Neil Tilts at “Windmills”

In my capacity as a member of the FIX Protocol Limited working group on electrical energy pricing (now inactive) I attended the FPL EMEA Trading Conference at Old Billingsgate in London on Thursday. The keynote speaker at the event was Andrew Neil. Publisher, writer and broadcaster according to the delegate guide. As you might expect Andrew had many insightful and/or amusing things to say about the current state of the global economy in general, and the no longer AAA British economy in particular. It’s probably not much consolation to most of my readers when I say that he was far more optimistic about prospects for the United States than for the United Kingdom and Europe.  I’ve been waiting for someone to post a comprehensive overview of Andrew’s musings, but nobody seems to have done so as yet, so it looks as though I will have to pick up the baton. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it!

Neil Ainger over at bobsguide has briefly covered the first part of Andrew Neil’s speech, but for some reason neglects to mention the considerable amount of time he spent offering his different prognoses regarding the future energy security of us over here in Europe compared to our cousins over in the United States.  According to Neil:

In his opening speech, Neil [the other one] outlined the UK and European economic and political situation for the audience of traders, investors, technologists and financial market participants, warning that loose monetary policy in the UK has the potential to incubate a low wage, high inflation economy. In recent years, wage rises have not kept pace with the cost of living in the UK, depressing demand and creating a downward economic cycle in the country.

You get the idea! Please feel free to read the rest of Neil’s article should you feel the need to experience a pain in all the diodes down your left side. My ears really pricked up however, when Andrew start talking about what he described as an imminent “major geopolitical change” based upon the much improved outlook for United States energy security. He thought that the exploitation of large deposits of shale oil in North Dakota will, almost literally, change the world overnight:

When Mr. Obama was re-elected for a second term in November 2012 only 10% of US oil was imported from the Middle East.  When he leaves office not a single drop of oil will come from the Middle East.

Mr. Neil predicted that in the comparatively near future the US will actually become a net exporter of both Liquified Natural Gas and oil. Consequently Mr. Obama would become “the first Pacific President”, and the United States’ strategic interests and military muscle would move away from Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA for short) towards a “Pan Pacific Pact“. As Mr. Neil put it:

Once that has happened who will keep the Strait of Hormuz open if not the Americans. Even the Chinese cannot do it. They don’t have enough planes.

With that sobering thought still ringing in our ears, Andrew offered to take a few questions from the floor. I waved my arm hopefully in the air, and was the second lucky recipient of the precious microphone. After announcing my name and affiliation I continued as follows:

You’ve already answered most of the questions I had about energy policy, but I do have a couple of supplementary questions. Tar sands, Keystone XL, renewables in the US and renewables in Europe?

Mr. Neil seemed convinced that both gas and oil would be flowing towards the Gulf of Mexico for export in significant quantities. However he didn’t seem optimistic that “windmills” as he called them would save our bacon over on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. I still had hold of the mic at that point, and took the opportunity to gently point out that the correct terminology is “wind turbines”. According to Mr.Neil renewable energy in general, and wind in particular, is far too variable to ever be more than a peripheral supplier of electrical energy, either in Europe or the United States.

By this time I had already handed the microphone back, so I had to bite my tongue while Andrew answered another question or two. After a well deserved round of applause he sat down.  At this point I stood up, jumped onto the podium, handed him my business card and suggested he get in touch at a more convenient time.

Here’s the thing. If Andrew knows anything about what the FPL EEP working group got up to, or what the rest of the United States smart grid working groups and committees are endeavouring to achieve, he gave a very good impersonation of someone who hasn’t got a clue.

Mr. Neil seemed to be similarly unaware that no less an authority than George Osborne recently suggested that low cost energy storage is vital to the UK’s future economic well being. As George succinctly put it last year:

Electricity demand peaks at around 60 GW, whilst we have a grid capacity of around 80 GW – but storage capacity of around just 3 GW. Greater capability to store electricity is crucial for [renewable] power sources to be viable. It promises savings on UK energy spend of up to £10 billion a year by 2050 as extra capacity for peak load is less necessary.



Google Gives UK Schools Piles of Raspberry Pi Kits

Last year Google chairman Eric Schmidt warned that Britain was throwing away its “great computer heritage” by failing to teach programming in schools. Mr. Schmidt also promised some funds to teach teachers how to use the Raspberry Pi “microcomputer” to teach programming. Now Google has taken the next obvious step, and promised more money to put piles of Pis in UK classrooms. According to the BBC:

Schools around the UK are to be given 15,000 free microcomputers, with a view to creating a new generation of computer scientists. Funded by Google, the Raspberry Pi Foundation hopes the free devices will inspire children to take up coding.

Eric Schmidt put it this way:

Britain’s innovators and entrepreneurs have changed the world – the telephone, television and computers were all invented here. We have been working to encourage the next generation of computer scientists and we hope this donation… to British school pupils will help drive a new wave of innovation.

Not everybody appears to be happy with Google’s initiative however. The National Union of Teachers said that:

Schools are increasingly being used as marketing venues by companies promoting their own brands in return for teaching resources, books, sports equipment or computers. Commercial sponsorship of school resources and equipment and their involvement in training can actively undermine teachers’ efforts to educate children about the dangers of manipulation and commercial exploitation.

Somewhat surprisingly it seems that Microsoft are at least partly in agreement with Google on this issue. According to Steve Beswick, their Director of Education:

Computer science is something that we have been calling the ‘fourth science’ for some time. We believe that it is every bit as important as physics, chemistry and biology. By formally introducing children to computer science basics at primary school, we stand a far greater chance of increasing the numbers taking the subject through to degree level and ultimately the world of work.

Perhaps Microsoft will soon also be providing NUT members with free hardware around which to develop cross-curricular “fourth science/dismal science” lessons on modelling the benefits of increased knowledge of computer science to the Great British Economy?

Whether that comes to pass or not it seems that the Great British Government agrees with Google and Microsoft that such benefits will in fact occur. Education Secretary Michael Gove has just announced that computer science will be added to the English Baccalaureate syllabus. According to a Department for Education spokesperson:

We need to bring computational thinking into our schools. Having Computer Science in the EBacc will have a big impact on schools over the next decade. It will mean millions of children learning to write computer code so they are active creators and controllers of technology instead of just being passive users. It will be great for education, great for the economy, and will help restore the spirit of Alan Turing and make Britain a world leader again.

Here’s Eben Upton and Eric Schmidt explaining “Google’s secret plan” to some Great British Schoolchildren:

Long live the spirit of Alan Turing!

Bankrupt Battery Maker A123 Sold In Bits

On October 16th US lithium ion battery manufacturer A123 Systems announced that it had:

Entered into an asset purchase agreement with Johnson Controls, Inc., which plans to acquire A123’s automotive business assets, including all of its automotive technology, products and customer contracts, its facilities in Livonia and Romulus, Mich., its cathode powder manufacturing facilities in China, and A123’s equity interest in Shanghai Advanced Traction Battery Systems Co., Alpha’s joint venture with Shanghai Automotive. The asset purchase agreement also includes provisions through which Johnson Controls intends to license back to A123 certain technology for its grid, commercial and government businesses. A123 also continues to engage in active discussions regarding strategic alternatives for its grid, commercial, government and other operations, and has received several indications of interest for these businesses.

To facilitate the transaction process, A123 and all of its U.S. subsidiaries have filed voluntary petitions for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware. A123’s non-U.S. subsidiaries were not included in the filing.

Whilst A123 were working their way through Chapter 11, they did manage to find the time to make “the business case for grid energy storage” in Energy World magazine, concluding that:

Utilities and power producers all over the world continue to deploy systems that demonstrate the versatility, reliability and efficiency of energy storage. The applications that advanced energy storage technology can provide combining multiple functions, can create multiple revenue streams and further enhance the economic benefits of energy storage as an integral grid asset.

Matters have moved on since then however, and A123’s own revenue streams seem to have proved sadly inadequate. In a new press release A123 now say that:

It has reached agreement on the terms of an asset purchase agreement with Wanxiang America Corporation (“Wanxiang”) through which Wanxiang would acquire substantially all of A123’s assets for $256.6 million. The agreement was reached following an auction conducted under the supervision of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware (the “Court”). A hearing at which A123 and Wanxiang will seek the required Court approval of the sale is scheduled for Tuesday, December 11, 2012.

Excluded from the asset purchase agreement with Wanxiang is A123’s Ann Arbor, Michigan based government business, including all U.S. military contracts, which would be acquired for $2.25 million by Navitas Systems, a Woodridge, Illinois based provider of energy-enabled system solutions and energy storage products for commercial, industrial and government agency customers.

According to Pin Ni, the president of Wanxiang America:

We believe that A123’s industry-leading technology for vehicle electrification, grid energy storage and other industries complements Wanxiang’s strong R&D and manufacturing capabilities, so we think adding A123 to our portfolio of businesses strongly aligns with our strategy of investing in the automotive and cleantech industries in the U.S. We plan to build on the engineering and manufacturing capabilities that A123 has established in the U.S. and we are committed to making the long-term investments necessary for A123 to be successful.

Pin Ni may have to put the champagne on ice for while though, since the deal isn’t all signed and sealed just yet however:

The completion of the sale to Wanxiang is subject to certain closing conditions, including approval from the Court as well as from the Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States (CIFIUS). Because the total purchase price for A123’s assets would be less than the total amount owed to creditors, the Company does not anticipate any recoveries for its current shareholders and believes its stock to have no value.

This doesn’t sound like wonderful news for the hard pressed U.S. taxpayer either. A123 don’t refer to this aspect of things, but according to Reuters:

The U.S. Energy Department will not give A123 Systems Inc. the balance of a $249 million grant. Republicans lawmakers, meanwhile, renewed criticisms that the White House’s clean energy grant to the maker of lithium ion batteries for electric cars had wasted taxpayer money. The company had received about $133 million of its $249 million grant when it filed for bankruptcy protection in October.

Pin Ni, president of Wanxiang America, said his company would respect the decisions made by the DOE.

A123 declined to comment.

George Osborne Invests in Energy Storage

George Osborne, the United Kingdom’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave a speech at The Royal Society yesterday, extolling the benefits of scientific research for the British nation.  He said that:

I want to begin a debate about eight future technologies where we believe we can be the best – where we already have an edge, but we could be world-leading.

Number 5 on Mr. Osborne’s technology shopping list he described as:

Energy Storage for the Nation: Stockpiling Electricity

More specifically he mentioned three particular areas of British expertise:

First there are the batteries in all our personal electronic devices. These use lithium ion batteries working on a chemical reaction developed at Oxford in the early 1980s. Thirty years on that basic technology is still central.

Second there is the development of battery-powered vehicles. One reason Nissan decided to produce their new all electric LEAF car here in the UK in Sunderland was the continuing support for research on innovative batteries for cars.

Third there is the challenge of storing more electricity for the Grid.

Mr. Osborne then expanded on the why and the how of the UK Government’s support for grid scale storage research and development:

Electricity demand peaks at around 60 GW, whilst we have a grid capacity of around 80 GW – but storage capacity of around just 3 GW. Greater capability to store electricity is crucial for these power sources to be viable. It promises savings on UK energy spend of up to £10 billion a year by 2050 as extra capacity for peak load is less necessary.

The Research Councils’ energy programme is investing over £500 million over this Spending Review period in energy research, including energy storage. However, urgent action is needed to accelerate translation of research into new technologies and products so that global market opportunities are realised by UK companies – and ensure the UK is established as an international focus for energy storage research and innovation.

Research projects are delivering but the UK currently lacks the test-bed demonstrator capacity and dedicated R&D facilities to take the next step in developing and testing new grid-scale energy storage technologies. We need to create them. We are funding the Energy Technologies Institute jointly with industry partners – including BP, Caterpillar, EDF Energy, E.ON, Rolls Royce and Shell – to accelerate new technologies for producing clean, reliable and affordable energy. And we are now investing £800 million with industry to maximise the funding of low carbon energy technology innovation.

Mr. Osborne ultimately concluded his speech by saying that:

It is right that, even at times of fiscal restraint, we find the resources to enable new scientific breakthroughs, to bridge the gap between discovery and commercialisation and to spread the economic and social benefits of scientific research. The prize is not just our future wealth but our health and quality of life, and our commitment to intellectual enquiry.

No one can know what the future holds. But we can discern those areas where we have particular strengths and which scientists themselves believe have the most potential. Let us identify what Britain is best at – and back it.

We have great science in Britain. We are backing it. And we will do more.

Let’s hope so! Mr. Osborne may not know what the future holds, but personally I predict a rather grim one if the UK (and indeed other nations) doesn’t get its energy R&D and broader energy policy sorted out in a hurry. Do you suppose the forthcoming Energy Bill will achieve that? Whilst we wait with bated breath to find out here’s a video in which David Clarke, Chief Executive of ETI, explains his views on “the real issue of avoiding the cost of having to upgrade our distribution network for electricity” in general, and Isentropic’s “pumped heat” thermal storage in particular:

Liquid Nitrogen Storage As Well As Electric Cars?

The Economist published an article on their web site last week entitled “End of the Electric Car?”. According to the Economist’s columnist “Babbage”:

A breakthrough in engine design has made liquid nitrogen an even more attractive alternative than the lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars. An invention made by an independent British engineer called Peter Dearman dispenses with the costly heat exchanger that is needed to vaporise the liquid nitrogen quickly.


The Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London, the leading standards-setting and registration body for the profession, was so impressed with the Dearman Engine Company’s developments that it has now established a working group comprising engineers, academics, government officials and industry leaders, to explore ways of exploiting liquid-nitrogen technology.

An aspect of the story that the Economist unaccountably failed to mention can instead be found on the web site of the Liquid Air Energy Group, where Tim Fox, Head of Energy and Environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers is quoted as saying:

We’re coming out of the cave blinking on this one and we’re only just getting an inkling of how great the energy benefits of liquid air could be.

which the Liquid Air home page follows up with:

Cryogenic liquids are widely used in industry already, but their adoption as an energy vector is only just beginning. A number of British organisations, research teams and Universities are already developing ways to use liquefied air (or liquid nitrogen, its major constituent) as a zero emission energy storage medium and transport fuel.

Note the emphasis on energy storage rather than transport fuel?  The Economist story has thus far attracted 422 comments, only one of which mentioned energy storage. That was one I made myself! I did get one recommendation for it, so perhaps at least one other Economist reader understands what I was on about?  Heading back to the Liquid Air Energy Group home page, they share the following video:

The first minute or so is spent on the Dearman Engine, but the video then goes on to point out that:

Liquid air could also have helped to keep the lights on

and then takes a look at a:

Liquid air pilot plant near Slough [that] uses up excess electricity from power stations and wind farms when consumer demand is low. It’s cheap energy storage that could reduce the need for so many power stations.

As I pointed out to the Economist, I’m afraid that cheap energy storage that’s already connected to the UK National Grid is a concept that gets me a lot more excited than speculation about liquid nitrogen pumps at motorway service stations.

ACCIONA Energy Announce Grid Connected Solar PV Storage

Spanish renewable energy company ACCIONA Energy have just announced (in a slightly strange translation into English) that they have:

Materialized the first European experience of real operation of a grid-connected photovoltaic plant on an industrial scale with energy storage in batteries.

In somewhat plainer English, ACCIONA have installed a 1.1 MW / 560 kWh modular lithium-ion battery system supplied by French battery manufacturer Saft at their existing 1.18 MWp solar photovoltaic site at Tudela in the Navarre region of northern Spain. Please note that Navarre currently obtains most of its electricity from renewable sources, unlike the rest of Europe!

Saft 560 kWh modular lithium-ion battery system

Saft 560 kWh modular lithium-ion battery system

Continue reading

Fresh Raspbian Refreshes the Raspberry Pi

A few days ago I was complaining (albeit only slightly!) about sluggishness whilst scrolling through the V2G blog on my shiny new Raspberry Pi. Now however help is at hand, in the form of the official release of the “Raspbian” flavour of Debian “Wheezy” Linux. According to Eben Upton on the Raspberry Pi blog this morning:

We are pleased to announce the release of our first SD card image based on the Raspbian distribution. This is the result of an enormous amount of hard work by Alex and Dom over the past couple of months, and replaces the existing Debian squeeze image as our recommended install. Notably, it is the first official image to take full advantage of the Raspberry Pi’s floating point hardware for, amongst other things, much faster web browsing.

Users who are still using Debian squeeze will definitely want to switch to this, as it contains numerous tweaks and performance improvements to the firmware, kernel and applications.

Needless to say the first thing I did when I heard the news was to download the new image  ( from one of the many “alternative” Raspberry Pi mirror sites.  The first thing I noticed was that on the inital boot I was presented with the shiny new (to me at least) raspi-config utility:

The RasPiConfig utility on the V2G Office wall

The RasPiConfig utility on the V2G office wall

I duly used it to expand the root partition to use the whole of my 8Gb SD card, and also to configure my Pi to boot into a graphical desktop automatically. In case you’re wondering why that picture is a bit fuzzy and a slightly strange colour, here’s one reason.

The V2G Pi Projector System

The V2G Pi Projector System

You’ll note that we have a shiny new display device to go with our shiny new operating system.  The first picture is of the V2G office wall, now powered by a shiny new Optoma HD600-X LV projection display driven by a Raspbian equipped Raspberry Pi model B.

After a reboot I then tried out the Midori web browser in anger once more, I’m happy to confirm that reading the V2G blog on a RasPi no longer feels “remarkably similar to wading through treacle”:.

No Gnome Means No Screenshots

No Gnome means no screenshots

The raw Raspbian distribution seems to be cut right down to the bare essentials, and after a brief hunt I couldn’t find my familiar Gnome desktop, or even some sort of “Paint” utility. Hence I’ve resorted to taking pictures of screens, not to mention walls! Finally, for today at least, swiftly scrolling through the V2G blog did reveal one remaining “feature” to me:

"An HTML5 supported browser is required for video playback"

"An HTML5 supported browser is required for video playback"

It seems to be a trifle tricky to watch web videos with Raspbian Midori at the moment!


The Raspberry Pi is now Orderable IN QUANTITY!

Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s technology correspondent, reports this morning that:

Last week Electrocomponents, the RS parent company, reported that booming sales of the Raspberry Pi had boosted its first quarter revenues.

Recently returned from “a Raspberry Jam in Cambridge”, Rory also mentions that he had:

Heard some breaking news from Eben Upton. Production had ramped up to 4,000 units a day to meet demand, but there was still a backlog of orders.


But what really excited the crowd was the announcement that a camera module for the device was coming very soon, priced at $20-$25 and offering 5MP photos and good quality video.

According to Rory, Eben also said:

It’s been completely crazy. At Christmas last year we thought we might sell 10,000 of these devices, so to be sitting here with 200,000 out in the wild and plans to get to a million by the end of the year is just incredible.

In other Raspberry Pi flavoured news this morning, Liz Upton reports on the Raspberry Pi blog that:

Up until now, we’ve had to restrict purchases of the Raspberry Pi to one per customer  because the demand has been (and continues to be) so high. Both of our manufacturing partners have been working at building capacity so you we can lift that limit – right now, 4000 Raspberry Pis are being made every day. As of this morning, you’ll be able to buy as many Raspberry Pis as you want.

Unfortunately delivery won’t be next day, because according to Jo from RS:

We’re currently forecasting that these orders will start reaching customers by the end of September.

Nonetheless this would seem to be a step in the right direction if you’re currently planning on having a classroom full of RasPis ready in time for the start of the next academic year, with or without 5 megapixel cameras attached.


Liz Upton reports on the Raspberry Pi blog this morning that:

Up until now, we’ve had to restrict purchases of the Raspberry Pi to one per customer  because the demand has been (and continues to be) so high. Both of our manufacturing partners have been working at building capacity so you we can lift that limit – right now, 4000 Raspberry Pis are being made every day. As of this morning, you’ll be able to buy as many Raspberry Pis as you want.

Delivery won’t be next day however, because according to Jo from RS Components:

We’re currently forecasting that these orders will start reaching customers by the end of September.

Nonetheless this would seem to be a step in the right direction if you’re currently planning on having a classroom full of RasPis ready in time for the start of the next school year.


Renewable Energy is the Work of Generations of Engineers?

Fresh from bemoaning the lack of grid-scale energy storage to support all the large scale solar PV parks currently being proposed here in not so sunny South West England, the latest edition of the IEEE Spectrum magazine landed on my doormat this morning.  In all the circumstances it would have been very handy if it had arrived this time last week, since it contains all sorts of statistics and arguments derived therefrom that support my position on that locally contentious issue!

In an article entitled “A Skeptic Looks at Alternative EnergyVaclav Smil, a distinguished professor in the department of environment and geography at the University of Manitoba, bemoans (amongst other things) solar PV subsidies here in Northern Europe:

In June 2004 the editor of an energy journal called to ask me to comment on a just-announced plan to build the world’s largest photovoltaic electric generating plant. Where would it be, I asked—Arizona? Spain? North Africa? No, it was to be spread among three locations in rural Bavaria, southeast of Nuremberg.

I said there must be some mistake. I grew up not far from that place, just across the border with the Czech Republic, and I will never forget those seemingly endless days of summer spent inside while it rained incessantly. Bavaria is like Seattle in the United States or Sichuan province in China. You don’t want to put a solar plant in Bavaria, but that is exactly where the Germans put it. It happened for the best reason there is in politics: money. Welcome to the world of new renewable energies, where the subsidies rule—and consumers pay.

After laying his cards on the table at the outset Vaclav then lays into a wide range of renewable energy subsidies, making only two exceptions:

Without these subsidies, renewable energy plants other than hydroelectric and geothermal ones can’t yet compete with conventional generators. There are several reasons, starting with relatively low capacity factors—the most electricity a plant can actually produce divided by what it would produce if it could be run full time. The capacity factor of a typical nuclear power plant is more than 90 percent; for a coal-fired generating plant it’s about 65 to 70 percent. A photovoltaic installation can get close to 20 percent—in sunny Spain—and a wind turbine, well placed on dry land, from 25 to 30 percent. Put it offshore and it may even reach 40 percent. To convert to either of the latter two technologies, you must also figure in the need to string entirely new transmission lines to places where sun and wind abound, as well as the need to manage a more variable system load, due to the intermittent nature of the power.

I couldn’t have put it better myself, and I couldn’t have fitted it all into 5 minutes last Monday  either. If you have any interest in learning how to discern the difference between Green Energy and GreenWash I heartily recommend you read the article in full. Several times if necessary, until Vaclav’s message makes sense to you. To summarise, here’s his closing remark:

It is impossible to displace [the world’s fossil-fuel-based energy system] in a decade or two—or five, for that matter. Replacing it with an equally extensive and reliable alternative based on renewable energy flows is a task that will require decades of expensive commitment. It is the work of generations of engineers.

As if all that wasn’t enough, here’s a 45 minute video in which Bill Gates presents his views on energy policy in general, and Vaclav Smil in particular:

Finally here’s David MacKay’s “brilliant book” that Bill refers to around 18 minutes into his presentation. Sustainable energy, without the hot air.

The “Largest Single Electric Vehicle Order Ever” Includes Vehicle to Grid Technology!

Forbes columnist Tom Konrad is evidently better at reading Chinese than I am, and he reports that:

The city of Hangzhou just signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Kandi Technologies and nine other companies to supply 20,000 electric vehicles (EVs) for the city’s “pilot” EV leasing program.

This news is of great interest to us here at V2G Limited because not only that, but also:

Other companies involved will supply the batteries (Air Lithium (Lyoyang) Co. Ltd.) and charging by the local utility.  The utility will fund construction of a charging and battery swap station network as well as paying for the batteries.


The batteries will serve a dual use for grid stabilization, or Vehicle to Grid (V2G) technology.  The batteries will be financed by charges to electricity customers because of this dual use.  So, in addition to this being the largest EV sale ever announced, the project is also effectively the largest scale trial of the use of EV batteries for V2G.

The comments on the story clarify that:

The greedy utilities don’t want to share [the] value with consumers – that’s the only problem with V2G.

To that I would add the rider that (over here in Europe at least) V2G technology isn’t ready for “prime-time” just yet for another reason. The standards are still being developed apart from anything else.

Note that at the end of his report Tom also discloses that he is: