Although I went to the launch of the Italian version of Shaping Things by Bruce Sterling way back in 2007, it wasn't until recently that I owned a copy, and only last weekend that I started reading it. I'm sad to say that it wasn't the Italian version, but at least that meant I could understand it...
It was a very quick read, and I haven't dog-eared many pages. However, that's not because there's nothing useful in the book - just that it works best read as an entire work, rather than as excerpts. If you've any interest in design or products then this is a good manifesto for how they should become more sustainable as well as more futuristic.
Everyone can't be a designer - any more than everyone can be a mayor or a senator
[...] with enough informational power, the "invisible hand of the market" becomes visible. The hand of the market was called "invisible" because Adam Smith, an eighteenth-century economist, had very few ways to measure it. Adam Smith lacked metrics. Metrics make things visible.
Suppose that I'm trying to create a new kind of object, to shape a new kind of thing. I don't want to be burdened with the weighty physicality of the old one. I want a virtual 3-D model of the new one, a weightless, conceptual, interactive model that I can rotate inside a screen, using 3-D design software.
Then I'm not troubled by its stubborn materiality...
The dog-ears don't add much I'm afraid, and this last one I included because I think it shows one of the common mistakes that non-product-designers (and I include myself firmly in this camp) make when getting into making physical objects. The digital it's-all-about-the-new-tools-and-digital-fabrication mentality rarely survives its first encounter with reality. The new tools do unlock new ways of working, but they don't mean you can ignore the physicality of the materials and avoid iterations and prototyping in the real world. That said, Shaping Things is definitely more good than bad.
Yesterday afternoon I spent an enjoyable afternoon doing some hacking and making, but of a slightly more old-school type than my usual hacking.
Through the Transition Towns South Liverpool mailing list I heard about a "DIY and fixing" workshop that was being held at the Liverpool Social Centre on Bold Street. As the announcement email stated:
"The idea being that if you have anything which needs fixing, be it clothes, a bike, a computer whatever, bring it along and try to fix it yourself. All going well there will be other people there who have either experience in something similar, or keen to help out and together we will work it out.
For those of you who have nothing to fix (surely you have something thats been broken for ages and you just haven't had the energy or time to fix it), there will be a project of making something."
I didn't have a project to take along, and part of my motivation was just to meet some other people doing making/tinkering/hacking sorts of activities in Liverpool, but I was also drawn in by the idea of the collaborative project: Luke wanted to build a bike-powered generator.
Luke is on the right in the photo above, discussing the next step in tbe build process with Mark. The three of us spent a few hours pulling rusty nails out of bits of wood, sawing, drilling holes and screwing things together.
The first step in the bike generator was to build a frame to lift the back wheel off the floor to let it rotate without the rest of the bike moving. Once that's done then there needs to be some mechanism to drive a motor in reverse to generate the power, but yesterday we were just focused on building the frame.
Luke had brought half an old wooden pallet and a length of steel pipe, which you can see scattered around the floor in the photo above. By the end of the session we'd transformed it into something that looks like it might do the trick, as you can see in this photo. It still needs some diagonal bracing added, and the piece for the other side still needs the "feet" pieces screwing on, but we were pretty pleased with the progress we'd made.
I think Luke is planning on finishing off the stand on his own (as it doesn't need much more work) and then the next session will look at how to connect the bike wheel to the motor, which should be an interesting session.
It gave me plenty of food for thought on how best to run these sorts of activities though. A permanent space, where we could collect a set of useful tools, and where there were some decent workbenches would make things lots easier; and I wonder if weekend sessions would help the Liverpool Hackspace be more productive. The Tuesday evening meets are good, but it's often hard to get much beyond catching up with each other and chatting about stuff - having a whole afternoon means you can really get stuck into something, but maybe makes it harder for people to attend?
A few days ago I found out about a project that the Liverpool Architecture Society is in the process of launching. The Integrated City Project is a challenge to look at ways of reconnecting the various districts and areas of Liverpool and working out a cohesive set of suggestions and plans for how best to develop the city.
There isn't anything as yet on the LAS website, but the LAS President elect, Robert MacDonald, has kindly agreed to let me publish the details in a web-friendly format here.
I'm not exactly sure how I can help with the project, but it seems that it could be a great opportunity (and possibly that final push that I need) to try out some of the really interesting "civic software" initiatives that are springing up.
Could the findings feed into a set of requirements for some DIYCity.org projects?
Would something like the Sutton Green Map help inform people about amenities, planning and infrastructure issues?
Can we experiment with the recently released source code for EveryBlock?
Of course, it's quite possible that this is the sort of technology-focused response that fails miserably because it's targeted at the iPhone-wielding web native. But I think there are ways round that, and that's maybe where the geeks of Liverpool can help - rather than just installing all these whizzy Web2.0 services, we can extend them and look for ways to integrate them into peoples lives. Maybe text-messaging can provide enough interaction and richness to bootstrap the service; or we could integrate with The Newspaper Club to provide hyper-local, customised paper versions of the content; or work with local shopkeepers to install simple information kiosks... We'll need to work out what the problems really are first, but if services like this are useful then the technical challenges can be overcome.
I don't want to publish Robert's email address online, so if you want to find out more or get involved with the project then let me know and I'll happily pass your details on. My email address is over on the left.
Just imagine a ‘do it yourself’ city. Crises in government organisation and financial development are leading towards the self organisation of people in urban situations. Liverpool Citizens need encouragement to take creative and cultural urban control of architecture and inner city developments.
As an upbeat creative response to the economic recession, The Liverpool Architectural Society (established 1848) and others are planning a positive city wide project as part of the forthcoming cultural years of the Environment and Innovation. The society aims to address architectural, cultural, planning and social issues in the Inner and Outer City of Liverpool. The LAS aims to be inspired by local communities and situations. Multi-professional teams of architects, landscape architects, artists, students and communities will set out to create a series of practical and theoretical urban propositions for the inner city. A locally designed and constructed integrated light rail tram system is also being considered as a way of re-connecting different parts of the fragmented Inner City.
Currently, the Inner City is very much a hollow vessel without people. It needs new urban activity and density. In 1931 the overall population was 857, 247 and in 2002 the population was 441,500. In Merseyside, 83,000 jobs were lost between 1981 and 1986, representing 1 in 3 jobs. The average annual income in Liverpool was £7,363 in 2001, which was £4,127 under the national average. Unemployment is well above the national average. The biggest single knowledge gap is that we do not know whether the vacant land and empty building problem is getting worst, or better, or staying the same. The population increase in the 12,000 of new build apartments, in recent years, has been in the City Centre. Why has the inner city and outer areas been excluded and disconnected from these new developments ? The LAS ambition is to include the Inner City in future speculative visions for the city.
The best way to appreciate the shrinking Inner City and polarisation of Outer City of Liverpool is to just take a short walk out from the City Centre or take a bus ride to The Dingle, Toxteth, Kensington, Edge Hill or Walton or Seaforth. Any number of empty buildings, houses and vacant sites immediately become apparent. These neighbourhoods, districts and locations will be the focus of The Integrated City Project (see adjacent map, copyright James Mellor) This map highlights 33 urban districts including Speke and Garston. There are also numerous zones of vacancy ‘inbetween’ the perceived urban neighbourhoods.
The urban design methodology will be to invite 33 independent and autonomous teams of designers to adopt one the Urban Districts or neighbourhoods. Each group will then be invited, over a twelve month period, to develop local contacts and participate with their communities to create new Urban Models for the neighbourhoods. The community connections might include Liverpool City Council, Merseyside Network for Change, Tenants Spin, City Planners, industrialists,developers, schools, businesses, creative industries, social groups, libraries, hospitals, health centres, GP’s, public houses, cultural, sports and entertainment. This process of design participation will be recorded by public progress presentations.
The objective will be to hold an exhibition in a Major Public Venue in 2010 attracting National profile and publicity. The 33 individual projects will be presented as 1.500 models, photographs of the inner city communities, illustrations of the new projects, interactive multi-media, film and moving image. The Liverpool City Council will be invited to take a lead and participate by displaying the updated Shankland City Centre Model. There will be opportunities for public participation, sponsorship, either financial or in kind with the involvement of various city wide agencies.
It was on Saturday 9th May and I'd just returned from a chaotic week in Germany. It was full of passionate people trying to work out what could be done to help sustainability, but by the end of the day I was getting rather frustrated with how we were defining the Manifesto for Change by what we were against, rather than looking for aspirational and more positive directions to channel our energies. Sadly I was wiped out after my week away (where I'd also acquired a cold) and so wasn't up to engaging with my fellow attendees, so I just retracted into my digital shell and heckled them electronically.
Before reaching that point, however, I did present some thoughts about the growing co-working and hackspace scenes. The flexible working and community-building that seems to come with such spaces could fall easily into a more sustainable way of working. And to meet my aforementioned aspirational and positive approach I even ended with a rather grand vision for how such a movement might evolve here in Liverpool.
I'll leave anyone interested to find more details by reading through my slides, but by all means get in touch if you'd like to know more...
There are notes with the slides, but they don't seem to have come out in the Slideshare presentation. If you download the Powerpoint deck for the slides you'll be able to get an idea of what I was talking about when giving the presentation.
Back from a whirlwind trip to Essen in Germany for the Kiosk and Digital Signage Expo, I've barely time to catch up on my emails before the next event I'm attending...
Tomorrow I'll be heading down to FACT in the centre of Liverpool for an interesting-looking unconference. The Unsustainable Unconference is part of their "Climate for Change" programme (which is also hosting both Be2Camp North and Howduino).
Follow the link above, or have a look at the flyer below for more information, and come and say hello if you spot me there tomorrow.
Back in November I posted a link to some details on the Year of the Environment. The details were pretty sketchy and it seemed quite late that things were being announced, particularly with all the talk of needing to maintain the momentum built up over the Capital of Culture year.
I'd have thought that now we're in February things would've been announced, and maybe even starting to happen, but I haven't seen any evidence of it. FACT are running a Climate for Change season to tie in with it, but the council have been pretty quiet on the matter.
I'm not the only person to notice. David Connor has just written about it over on his blog, and mentions that my earlier blog post about it currently ranks top of Google for the search "Liverpool Year of the Environment". And he's not the only person to end up here whilst looking for information about the Year of the Environment - 35 other people have landed at McFilter after searching for that on Google in the past month alone.
I completely agree with David when he says:
"I’m not expecting the Local Authority to drive this alone, or even expect any of their environmental partners to fly the flag. We all have a responsibility to play our part regardless of a themed year or where you live or work.
Can we please grasp this opportunity to maintain the momentum of Capital of Culture and direct that energy into a better place for our children and grandchildren?"
It does seem to be an opportunity being missed. Maybe I'll find out some more at the Liverpool Environment Network Open Meeting that's on tomorrow as Cllr Berni Turner will be speaking there after lunch. I'll report back if I find anything out.
Another piece of news that first featured in my twitter feed was the fact that I won the "Bitchin' Pitches" session at Barcamp Liverpool when I talked about the Mazzini project. It's been great to hear such positive things from people about it, and over on the company blog you can read more about the competition.
In the run up to Barcamp Liverpool I set myself a challenge, and was even stupid enough to spell out the rather ambitious idea here on my blog. I decided to prepare two talks: the beginners guide to Arduino I've already posted; and a second which would be about inspiring people to start a business, or work out what's "wrong" with Liverpool and fix it, or use technology to counter climate change.
I didn't want to steal two slots in the schedule if that would stop someone else from presenting anything, so I held off adding the second talk until late morning on Sunday. There was a slot free for the end of the day, which fitted nicely with my ideas of rounding off the weekend with something of a call to arms.
I tried to pull the possible threads together under the umbrella term of improving the world, but I think my current business-focus skewed things a little. Still, I hope the dozen-or-so people present take the general idea and twist it to their own experiences and passions, and that me rambling about doing great things does have some small effect.
I've done what I can, whether this is "the spark that started things happening" will be up to others.
As ever, the slides are on Slideshare. After the talk, Alex asked about the assorted business networking events I'd mentioned, so I've thrown a list of places that I find out about business events and networking onto the GeekUp wiki. Feel free to add to that if you know of any similar links in the NW. The other way to find out about more of the events I attend is to keep an eye on my Upcoming page.
Last Thursday evening saw the inaugural Green Drinks Lancashire up in Preston. The Scholars Bar in UCLan wasn't the easiest to find (maybe a sign or two inside the building would help in future?) but getting on for twenty people had managed to track it down.
The mix of "professions" was a little different to Green Drinks Liverpool (next one is this Thursday), with more of a construction and architecture flavour, but the conversation was just as interesting. After initial chatting amongst smaller groups it evolved into one big group discussion touching on a variety of topics.
Amongst the interesting tidbits I learnt during the evening were that modern, efficient washing machines only have a cold feed because they use so little water that they wouldn't empty the water in the pipes to get to the hot water; and the Government's "Green Skies" accreditation for solar/renewables installers isn't necessarily much use - gear that has the accreditation is often more expensive (for no gain in performance) and so negates the benefit of the grants available to buy it.
It was also good to catch up with Be2Camp organiser Martin again. I'm looking forward to the next one, and hopefully it will gain a website sometime soon so I can point people at it... (hint, getting shown on the "official" Green Drinks Lancashire page would be a good start).
In a couple of weeks it's the first Barcamp Liverpool. One of the "rules" of Barcamps is that everyone who turns up should have a talk ready that they offer to present. I've been pondering over what I should prepare for my talk.
So far I've generally hinted at doing something Arduino-related, and have been assuming I'd either talk about monitoring your home (show the Mazzini prototype, talk about that and some of the similar projects from others, or some of the things I learn about at Homecamp); or running a more general "Getting started with Arduino" session where I plug some LEDs and a switch into a breadboard and write a bit of Arduino code. And I expect I'll still have something along those lines as one of my proposals.
However, I've just realised that I should be turning my thinking on its head. Rather than coming up with ideas based on the knowledge that I've got that others might find interesting, I should instead be answering the question:
You've got the attention of a couple-of-dozen motivated and intelligent geeks; how do you want to change their lives?
Now you could improve their knowledge, which is what my initial ideas cover; but maybe it would be better to inspire them to go out and improve the world, or challenge their thinking and affect their future behaviour.
I'm setting myself the challenge to go to Barcamp Liverpool with two proposals: one along the lines of the Arduino tutorial, and another that falls into the second category. I'm just not sure what it will be about. Maybe I'll talk about starting and building businesses that make a difference; or lead a brainstorming session to work out what's going wrong in Liverpool and how to fix it; or implore people to find ways to improve the reuse and recycling of technology to improve the environment; or...
I'd love to hear anyone's ideas, comments or thoughts on what this second proposal should aim to achieve. I'd love it even more if you came along to Barcamp Liverpool and presented something along these lines to inspire me. How cool would it be if we could point to Barcamp Liverpool as the spark that started things happening?
On the face of it, the Government's Energy Performance Certificates sound like a good idea: every home being sold, or rented, has to provide a rating similar to that of a fridge or a washing machine, giving its energy efficiency on a scale of A to G.
In practice though (in my experience at least) they seem more of an easy money-making scheme that looks like it's doing something to help, without actually helping much. Our flat had its EPC survey done recently, which seemed to consist of a bloke wandering round recording the sizes of the rooms and noting down features like double-glazing and whether or not the light bulbs are compact fluorescents.
We got the results today, and its rating is D (65). According to the landlord, the UK average is E (46), so it's doing well for a high-ceilinged Georgian terrace built around 1870. I'm surprised it's fared better than Geoff's place in Cambridge, which only ranked at E and is a fairly similar sort of building - just a few decades newer (at a guess).
Phil Clark's flat is a lot newer, being built in 2003, but as he blogged today, is still a way off the top rating; coming in with a C. I suppose that shows we've got a lot of scope to improve matters, which is handy given the targeted reductions in CO2 emissions.
It's a shame then, that the EPCs don't seem to be suggesting anything useful to improve energy efficiency. Our recommendations (filtered through the landlord - I haven't seen the actual report myself) are pretty similar to Phil's "install low energy lighting" - the landlord is looking into replacing the few light fittings that can't take low-energy lighting, and the only other recommendation would be to add a room-thermostat to the existing per-radiator thermostat controls. The government could've sent everyone a check-list of basic things to implement and saved everyone a fortune.
Geoff's certificate shows that even if he followed all their suggestions it still wouldn't get his house out of the E band! If that's true then we either need to start demolishing most of our houses, or give up on the whole fight against climate change.
Apparently our survey didn't make any recommendations about the lack of double-glazing because the huge sash windows are protected by the house being in a conservation area. Surely double-glazed sash windows could be installed? It could be that it's a convenient get-out clause for the landlord, which I can understand given the amount it would cost to replace all the windows in the twenty flats they own in the terrace; but that cuts to the heart of the problem: how to bring the existing building stock up to top efficiency without destroying the character of the properties or costing a fortune.
Following on from a successful year as Capital of Culture, next year sees Liverpool focus on the environment. Up until recently though I didn't know much more than that. No-one seemed to have any idea of what the plans were, or who was involved in making it happen.
Information about it is starting to leak out. Last week I attended the first part of the Trade Waste Management & Computer Security event at the new BT Convention Centre where Councillor Berni Turner outlined what they're planning.
And before I'd had time to write-up my notes and publish them here, the details have been released on the Liverpool City Council website.
I think the most interesting ideas are the green ambassadors and the hosting of special events to encourage debate about environmental issues in each of Liverpool's five neighbourhoods.
Hopefully I'll be able to find out a bit more about getting involved before January. I wonder if anyone wants to help me build/fund a live energy usage display for the city...?
It seems to be the week for new web sites. First off, John Grant is one of "ten green bloggers" (it's not clear if they're hanging on a wall...) writing about the launch of new web site CanvassYourMP.com.
It's a web campaign to persuade the UK government to set some real and useful targets for CO2 emissions. The site will help you find out who your MP is, and how to get in touch with them so that you can ask them to support a change in the Climate Change Bill.
Most interestingly, they're also collating the responses, so hopefully we'll see some report in the future of how well the MPs listen to their constituents.
For a while now I've been wondering about how to green our homes. Over on the company blog I've just announced the Mazzini Project, the latest idea along these lines that I've been playing around with.
It's a wireless power-monitor combined with a control unit so that as well as letting you know exactly how much electricity whatever is plugged into it is using, you can also turn it on and off remotely. I'm still just building the first prototype (I was wiring together circuits and measuring things with the multimeter just this afternoon) but I wanted to start talking about the idea to see what people thought.
I've put some slides together to try to explain it in more detail, so please have a look at them and let me know what you think. Is it a good idea? Would you buy one? How would you hack one to do things I haven't thought of?
If you want to see the slides full-screen, then you can do that from this page.
This is the first post from the recent trip to Modena, but don't worry, there are plenty of pictures of supercars still to come. This photo is from a collection of tractors which forms part of the Museo d'Auto e Moto d'epoca Umberto Panini, rather a contrast from the old Maseratis just a few metres away.
According to the details attached to the tractor (and assuming my Italian is up to scratch), the tractor is powered by four electric motors, each providing between 5 and 9.5KW. The motors are run from two 72V batteries, which give 480Ah of charge. The tractor weighs 4500Kg (the batteries themselves account for 1440Kg of that total) and has a top speed of 18Km/h.
It's far too early in the morning, but the one daily flight from Turin to Stansted leaves in a few hours so I'll be off to the airport soon.
This is a short post to remind anyone who might be interested that it's the geeKyoto conference tomorrow. I'll be attending (which is the reason for the trip to London) and am looking forward to it. If you're going, say hi - I'm quite friendly really, and look something like this
If for any reason anyone needs to contact me, I'm reachable on 07710 036866.
Mark Simpkins green geek conference idea that I wrote about a while back now has a date, a venue and a name.
geeKyoto2008 is on Saturday, 17th May 2008 in London, and tickets are available for the bargain price of £20.
I'm going; now I need to see if I can find a better way to get there than by plane...
Mark Simpkins has floated the idea of geekGreen, a conference he wants to organise to encourage "radical ideas and stories in the time of climate change".
I'm posting this because I think it's a great idea, that needs more support so that it will become a reality. I think the idea of an "unconference" for the third day is superb.
I'm also going to use this post to register my interest in attending, and maybe even speaking, because I can't be bothered creating yet another login for a site just to leave a comment. If it's on when we're back in the UK then I'll definitely be attending, and I'll have to see how the finances are if we're still here in Turin. I'm still disappointed that I missed Interesting 2007 because we were in the middle of moving country.
And speaking of Interesting 2007, it's organiser, Russell Davies, has is collecting suggestions for conferences to attend. There are plenty of suggestions in the comments if anyone wants to find something to attend next year...
Two important and related links about climate change and global warming.
Via Greenormal is news of the urgent need for people to show the world governments at the climate summit in Bali that we care about tackling climate change.
Sign up at avaaz.org
Here's what it is about (from the AVAAZ website):
"Climate negotiations in Bali are in crisis. Things were looking good till now: near-consensus on a delicate deal, including 2020 targets for rich countries, in return for which China and the developing world would do their part over time. IPCC scientists have said such targets are needed to prevent catastrophe. But Japan, the US and Canada are banding together to wreck the deal, and the rest of the world is starting to waver... We can’t let three stubborn governments throw away the planet's future. We have until the end of Friday to do everything we can. Please sign our emergency global petition below -- we'll deliver it through stunts at the summit, a full-page ad in the Jakarta Post in Asia, and directly to country delegates to stiffen their nerve against any bad compromise. Add your name to the campaign below now!
THE PETITION: We call urgently for the US, Canada and Japan to stop blocking serious 2020 targets for emissions reductions, and for the rest of the world to refuse to accept anything less."
And once you've signed the petition, head over to the RSA website and listen to the lecture given by Lord Puttnam (see the entry for 6/12/2007 entitled The Light That's Lost Within Us) from last week. It's a clear, and well thought-out piece about why we should be doing something about global warming.
His slavery analogy, and an audience member's observation (from which the title of this entry comes) are particularly good. Both were covered by Mike Reed when he wrote about it whilst guest blogging at Noisy Decent Graphics. So if you don't want to listen to the lecture, at least go and read Mike's summary.
They are something I'd heard of, in fact I saw one in the flesh during the tour of the AC Architects practice a couple of years back. They also had photos taken during the installation, when they sunk the boreholes for the pipework. More recently I'm sure I've heard about air-to-air heat pumps, which I imagine aren't as efficient but don't need you to dig deep holes in your garden.
It isn't something I'd considered with respect to the Green Utility (I can't call it the Solar Water Utility now, can I?) and I'm not going to invest any more time looking into it now, but it's a good idea.
However, today the House 2.0 blog has a post about some experiments that Barratt have been carrying out with Manchester University which give some interesting data points for anyone who would be building the Green Utility. Not taking into account inflation (or presumably other possible energy price increases), they've calculated the payback period for a number of green technologies:
A couple of days ago as I was passing the little bakery in the bottom of our apartment block the lady who owns it called me over. She wasn't checking if I wanted another siciliana loaf, one of the cool things about life in an Italian apartment block seems to be that one of the shops acts as an informal parcel collection point. Pop in for some bread, and pick up that Amazon delivery that arrived this morning...
And just to prove that it has made it all the way out to Turin, here's a photo of me holding it in Piazza Bodoni, just down the road from our apartment.
I had intended to make up some stupid pun about the Green Marketing Manifesto and the verdigris on the statue of Alfonso Ferrero, but whilst I was sat in the piazza I realised that I could mention the two green Torinese initiatives which were metres away from where I was sat.
Of course, this being Turin - home of FIAT and Lancia - both initiatives are transport-related. The first is the Autobus Elettrico, an electric bus service. The Star 2 route (so there are at least two electric bus routes) started recently and runs past Piazza Bodoni. The buses (see pic below) don't produce any emissions, and are much quieter than normal ones; they are still loud enough that you hear them coming, which is something I'd wondered about when I'd heard of such schemes before.
The other scheme is the Car City Club car-sharing club. They have lots of parking spaces dotted around the city-centre (like the one at Piazza Bodoni pictured below) and cars are available from 2 Euros/hour during the day (or there's some monthly payment system too).
I must admit I haven't used either of these services, but that's because we live in the middle of town and either walk or cycle (Turin is quite bike-friendly) to get anywhere locally.
After my post about encouraging take-up of solar water-heating, self-confessed professional sceptic Jeff raised some interesting questions. Rather than have them languish in the comments section of that entry, I thought I'd pull them into a new one and offer some form of response.
Here's what Jeff said:
1. The biggest problem is probably financing the operation: you are tying up the capital and cost of installation for the payoff time. It could work if the cost was cheap, and payoff was short, but if the payoff was over 5 years and it was £2500, I think you'd have a problem. Being below the interest rate provided by banks is a sure-fire way to make sure that the company is not going to be financed. You probably need to be hitting about 10% return per year. Not that much different from the rates on credit cards.
2. Energy users can swtich at any time. What if they switch 1 week after installation. You need a good contract. What if the house is re-possessed? You lose your investment.
3. UK government grants are not likely to pay for it. I think I've heard that they usually get all taken up on the first day that each grant season opens.
I'm not all doom and gloom, but I might be a professional skeptic. There are probably ways to make it work, but I think that the cost of the units and of installation have to come down.
I think they're all valid concerns, with the first one being the biggest and the one that I'm going to address here (given that I've thought the most about it).
I'm going to assume that the second point can, as Jeff suggests, be sorted out with the right contract - with the worst-case scenario being that the equipment lies dormant until you persuade a future householder to start paying you again. The third point just makes the first one harder, and wasn't something I was relying on - if "free money" is available, it makes sense to try to claim some.
I figured all this was a pretty pointless exercise if it was conducted with hand-wavy guesses as to the costs, payback period, etc. so I've done some very rough-and-ready calculations to give it a grounding in the real world.
Installation cost. Going on the price of a DIY-kit from this supplier and a throwaway comment on their FAQ (if I remember correctly), I reckon that each installation would be somewhere between £1500 and £2500.
Energy saved. A while back I came across some government research (warning: pdf) into the effectiveness of solar water-heating. That showed (averaging the results from table 7.7) that solar panels can provide about two-thirds of a household's hot water, or around 1050 kWh-worth of energy. That's the equivalent of around 117 litres of petrol, or 14 days of non-stop kettle boiling. The research is almost a decade old, so current technology should be better - however, the "old" solar panels were already providing more energy than could be used during the summer, so any gains would only help in the winter months.
Payback: replacing gas. npower charge 4p/kWh for the first 1000 kWhs, and only 2p/kWh after that. Solar energy is only likely to affect the second, lower pricing band which means it would save you a woeful £21 each year! Even if you assume that the price will almost quadruple over the next 30 years (pretty much what happened over the past 30 years) you wouldn't pay off even a £1500 installation cost over a twenty-five year lifespan of the panels.
Payback: replacing electricity. As electricity costs around 8p/kWh, it's easier to make a case for replacing it with solar water-heating. Even with no price increase you could payback a £1500 installation cost within 18 years, and given the same 30-year increase as we did in the gas example, the lower end installation would be paid off in eleven years and the £2500 installation cost in sixteen.
Carbon saved. Each year the solar water-heating system will save about 415kg of CO2 from being released, so over an expected system lifetime of 25 years that will add up to just over 10 tonnes of CO2. If you sold that today as a carbon offset it would be worth about £15.
To be honest I'm rather disappointed with the way the figures stack up, regardless of any business opportunity. Whether there's any decent profit to be made will depend on how the energy prices change over the coming years; particularly the price of gas, given the popularity of gas-fired central heating in the UK and its highly competitive current pricing.
I think there's still scope for a business that isn't entirely profit-driven in this area, although as Jeff points out, funding would be a huge issue. Could some form of hybrid charity/business be formed with the mission to remove our reliance on the energy grid?
As a charity (or charity-like entity) it could raise some of the funding from people who just believe in the goal and want to help out. It could add to the pot by selling the carbon-savings as carbon offsets - there's debate over how useful carbon offsets are, but if they can be used to help finance endeavours such as this then that's fine by me.
That won't solve the money problem, so if I was trying to start this myself I'd bootstrap it. Start small, and operate as a regular solar water-heating installer at the same time. That must be profitable because people are doing it, and the profits would be used to pay for the long-term investments.
If nothing changes then it continues slowly making the world a better place, but if the costs come down or gas/electricity prices soar you're perfectly placed to take advantage and scale things up.
One of the advantages of attending a performance of the baroque Mass of Notre Dame, as I did recently, is that it gives you a good two hours with nothing else to do but to sit and think as the sounds of the hurdy gurdy and Gregorian chant wash over you.
It was during this period that I got to wondering about how you could increase the take-up of alternative energy systems like solar water heating.
As you do. It's one of those chicken-and-egg situations isn't it? Even disregarding the benefit in reducing usage of fossil fuels, surely it's something everyone should be doing? Free energy, and it'll pay for itself after ten years or something.
So why haven't we all got it installed? It's that initial cost isn't it? A couple of grand isn't that easy to do without for ten years while you're recouping the cost. We thought about it when we had the bathroom done on the house in Cambridge, but couldn't quite justify the outlay given that the tenants would get all of the cost-savings. In the end we settled on a compromise measure, and had the right kind of hot-water cylinder fitted so when it's done in the future it will just need a couple of pipes run into the bathroom.
What we need then is some way for everyone to finance the installation without needing the cash up-front. Otherwise, solar-water heating will remain a doing-my-bit middle-class indulgence rather than a widely-adopted, distributed step in stemming global warming.
You could argue that the government should pay for the installations, or provide cheap loans to get round this problem; and to an extent it already does. However, that just shows what the problems are: there's a limited amount of funding available; you have to jump through all sorts of hoops to get any of it (e.g. you need a certain thickness of loft insulation); there are different grants available from different parts of government (in Cambridge there was a council grant available in addition to the central government one) with different conditions. On top of that, you still need to find someone to actually supply and fit the system.
None of which is very encouraging. We need a way to make it easier, and to remove barriers - not make it harder.
What if we could make it as easy as a process that lots of people already do, such as switching to a different gas or electricity company? When I switched our electricity to ecotricity last year, it just involved filling in a few fields online and then taking a meter reading. That's the sort of simplicity we need to aim for.
What if there was a different sort of green energy provider; one that, when you switched to them for your gas or electricity, also came and installed solar water heating at your house? Lets call it SOWHAT, the SOlar Water HeATing utility.
The switch-over process would be a bit more complicated, as there'd be an installation to arrange, but SOWHAT would deal with getting the government grants, providing the solar panels, etc. and use their own installers to fit it all. At the end, they'd give you a bill for the cost of the kit and the installation.
You would then decide to pay off as much, or as little, of the bill as you wanted, and the rest would be recovered over the years through your utility bills (plus a certain percentage to cover SOWHAT's ongoing costs and give them some profit). It might mean that it takes 15 years for your solar water heating "investment" to pay off, but in the long-run you'd still get free solar energy and collectively we'd get a lot more green power being used sooner.
Would it work? Does anyone want to build this utility? Let me know if you do, I'd love to be involved, even if it's just as one of the first customers.
We had a successful trip to Milton Tip yesterday, dropping off a collection of broken video recorders and an assortment of other junk from round the house.
That isn't worth blogging about, but I thought I'd mention what we brought back.
We're soon to redecorate the bathroom and will be replacing the bath, basin, etc. Even the most basic bathroom suites will set you back a couple of hundred pounds, so we were pleased to pick up a sink (including some nice taps), pedestal and toilet cistern for just £20.
If you add a bath and toilet pan to that (we didn't have space in the car for the bath, and they didn't have the exact style of toilet we're looking for there - we'll try again in a few weeks) I reckon you could have the whole set for not much over 30 quid. A bargain, and much better for our green credentials.
If anyone wants a caramel-coloured suite, there'll be one there in a month or so...