Sunday, August 1, 2010

Going green through Amber

We’ve just returned from holiday.  Visiting Luxembourg reminded me of an article about Boris Johnson’s efforts to make London more green by changing all the light bulbs in their thousands of traffic lights by changing them for LED bulbs.  While I applaud Boris’ initiative I believe he is missing a trick that Luxembourg and many American cities areadly know i.e. the use of flashing amber during non peak hours.

Why is this greener?  Its simple laws of physics.  Consider a car travelling at 28 miles per hour having to stop at a red light.  28mph = 12.5 meters/second.  For a 1.5 tonne car the energy put into the breaks during stopping is (0.5 * MV2) 118,000 Joules.  Now let us assume 40 cars per hour arrive at the traffic lights and half of them get a red light. This gives a total number of Joules lost per hour of 2.35MJ or 0.65kWh.  Four traffic lights per junction burn perhaps 600W or 0.6kWh so more energy is lost in the cars brakes than the bulbs. 

The story does not end there though.  Imagine its night and the cars headlights, heaters, or worse aircon are on and the engines are idling.  Its probably consuming about 300W of electricity and 200W of mechanical energy keeping the engine running.  If those 20 cars are 30% efficient and each stopped for an average of 30 seconds this contributes another 0.28kWh.  To be realistic we should also assume that every car has to slow down at the junction, loosing around 40,000Joules or another 0.23kWh. The total energy consumed per junction per hour is therefore 0.6+0.65+0.28+0.23 = 1.75kWh per hour.

Now let us consider the flashing amber scenario.  Assume now that only 10% of cars have to give way to other cars. We could be more scientific based on Poisson distribution, the average arrival rate of cars and the time it takes to cross the junction but I think 10% will be illustrative.  This means that 90% of cars slow down but do not stop and 10% of cars stop.  Assuming that the amber lights are now on 35% of the time the new energy consumption is 0.73kWh.  Lets now compare this figure with Boris Johnson’s green initiative, which comes to 1.25kWh assuming LED lights are 6x the efficiency. Taken together we can get down to 0.57kWh per junction or a 66% saving. A roundabout would be even more energy efficient as even less cars would stop and no lights would need to be burning.

Of course the traffic control zealots will argue that flashing amber lights are less safe than proper controlled lights.  I believe that this view is an insult to drivers who quite happily negotiate thousands of non traffic light controlled junctions every year without incident.  And yes, there probably will be a few more accidents per year, but compared to the energy savings achieved it will be a small price to pay.  Besides this there is some evidence that removing traffic lights actually reduces road deaths, see this article and another of Boris’ initiatives here for instance.

It is these same zealots that, in 2010, are still installing timer based lighting that give green lights to empty roads when cars are waiting.  If they really believed their rhetoric they would be spending 50W per junction on electronic control systems (for instance see , a 3D camera start-up) that can recognise where the traffic is and make the lights green for as many vehicles as possible. Such systems could automatically measure traffic density and, when appropriate, switch to flashing amber or even (for those notorious traffic light enhanced roundabouts) off. 

I hope I illustrated that holistic outside-the-box thinking with proper weighting of risk and reward will get us much further than simple incremental fixes. Its time to weadle out the zealots and install a new generation of traffic planners.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Avatar, Anti American, Anti Military or just a call for common sense?

We watched Avatar on DVD last night, fresh in at our local video rental shop.   The graphics were, of course, wonderful, full of faultless CGI but the film was so immersive that I took that for granted after a while.  What I didn't expect was a great story... 

Its set off world where the terrans are mining the wonderfully named "Unobtanium" and the hapless indiginous population of the planet is getting in the way of the corporate greed for more.  The aliens are living in harmony with their planet where every living thing is connected and depends upon keeping a delicate balance for survival.  The human invaders make a half-assed attempt at deplomacy before deciding just to take what they want by force of arms.

The parallels with human history are there in abundance. But more striking is the current battle of words about global warming, or the lack of it depending which side you are on. While one side is happy to destroy without thought for the consequences, quite happy with "business as usual", the other side see's its world being destroyed by ignorance, their pleas unheard.  At the centre of this conflict is a lone GI, "of the Jar Head clan", who bothers to take the time to understand the other sides point of view and decides he's on the wrong side.

Some people have written  that the film is anti-American and anti-military, but nowhere is it claimed that the corporation is American, and the wrong doers are not "the military" but a bunch of hired mercentaries. Any similaritieas must therefore be in the mind of the accuser, who surely believes that corporate America is like that and that it is their military might that made the USA great.   Personallly I think its films like Avatar, and freedom of speech that makes democracys like the US great.  Avatar is a warning of how our world could become if we take sides and stop listening to each other;  its not science fiction, its reality TV!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sustainable Energy — without the hot air

Is actually the title of a book written by Prof. David JC MacKay of Cambridge University and available for free download from . I've just downloaded it and it makes fantastic reading.  Highly recommended!

The Survey is now closed ...

Many thanks to the 150 people who filled in my survey.  I promised to publish the results, which I will do in another blog in the near future.  For now, here are some of the comments:

On Q10 : House Construction:
  • I have just had insulation board added to the inside of the walls which are at the gable end.
  • Cavity wall and loft insulation installed to current regulations in last 8 months.
  • Recently insulated
  • Recently renovated up to modern insolation standards (but still an old house)
  • Three storey converted terraced building
  • Rental property
  • Not completely sure don t have construction knowledge!
  • We rent our house so we are not likely to make any major changes to it eg. solar panels different heating.
  • The house is less than 1 year old and was designed very efficient as far as heating hot water and water consumption concerned. Examples: water heating tubes on the roof day/night eletricity meters and use rain water for toilet flushing.
  • Much lath and plaster. Some inaccessible roof spaces.
  • cavity wall just done
  • We rent. If we owned our home there is a lot we would do differently (adding insulation solar panals etc.)
  • Breeze block construction with brick facing very small cavity between brick and internal.
  • Three storey terraced house
  • During renovation close attention was paid to improving this aspect of the house
  • Added cavity wall insulation.
  • in is vintage 18 century
  • Some extra insulation has been added.
  • I am not the owner of the place I am currently living in.
  • You forgot to ask whether the respondent lives in an apartment in a larger house... and then let them skip the irrelevant questions :)
  • Energy Level as defined by Belgian goverment: E44 To be more correct on heating system; it s an air-to-water heat pump.
  • insulation as per 1979 standards = not great but OK
  • Originally solid wall construction but a considerable part of the walls is now insulated double glass and a new roof.
  • Mixed: cavity and solid
  • Cavity wall insulation installed about 2 years ago. Loft re-insulated this year.
On Q11:Other Greentech:
  • would love to but not feasible as an individual flat
  • conduits built into walls from roof ready for solar panel installation
  • specialised glass to reflect heat as part of double glazing
  • Specific building construction. Hot water comes from 1. solar panel 2. air heat pump (which is alo used for heating) 3. electricity
rain water for toilets & washing machine
On Q13: Why people would not be interested to lower their C02 by 50%
  • Unless US & China come to forefront then whatever the rest of the world does is pointless - if these guys join in then hopefully we ll see cost effective solutions.
  • [yes] Although the future saving on energy bills would be the most attractive lure for me.
  • not yet convinced these carbon footprinting philosophies are truely helping and not just a marketing gimmick.
  • depends on initial outlay. Q13 makes no sense to me.
  • Because we rent our house and we don t expect to be in it for many years. If we had our own home we would be interested in this.
  • I said yes because I believe anything vs today is a gain. Without financial details (what will it cost to me) and understanding what would be the consequences if I do not go lower than 50% I cannot give a better answer.
  • We won t stay long enough in the house for it to be worth it
  • This does not represent my entire carbon footprint it would be easier to make savings elsewhere e.g. less air travel
  • As a senior citizen I do not have the capital to undertake the work required
  • I would say yes but we rent our house so would not invest!
  • Other (budgetary) priorities right now!
  • don t believe it makes a difference
  • it is the energy (read $) that needs to be reduced. whether or not carbon footprint is reduced is less important (or seems)
  • Depends on the payback period should be < 10yrs I am not convinced carbon footprint is related to global warming. not interested in % rather in payback period. Population is the main cause of global warming. Anything other than reducing the number of people is palliative at best and diverting form the real problem Not enough detail to form an opinion Cost vs. proven savings.
On Q17: Comments about Financial Section
  • free money helps! Not prepared to take out a loan.
  • Prefer to finance alone and make independent decisions about company I would choose to carry out installation. Government/approved installers often charge well above the reasonable rate and do not necessarily do a better job. Would also prefer to see such help restricted to those who most need it
  • Would not need loan - but would want to reduce the cost / payback period - so loans not of interest.
  • Payback is the real issue. If the goverment would match half of the cost the technology would be widely deployed
  • Not clear why the energy supplier would want to subsidize a technology that reduces dependency on them... this is absolute B.S.
  • goverment tax breaks are only relevant for people paing a lot of goverment taxes
  • Payback period
  • Government subsidies and tax breaks are usually tied to it being done by qualified suppliers which seems to drive up the cost. I don t like borrowing money. I suspect that my *heating* costs (i.e. cost of gas minus hot water costs) are not that high so I would imagine that anything with a sub-three year pay-back would be quite cheap anyway. If it was going to take (say) twenty years to pay back then I d have to be totally convinced that (a) it would actually still work in twenty years time and (b) I couldn t do better just putting the money into an ISA.
Last but not least, Final Comments:
  • Perhaps people aren t filling in the survey cos they don t know if you are genuine? I don t think I am really your average person when it comes to this sort of thing. I would spend up to about £4000 and not want payback and spending more than that I wouldn t really be calculating payback but how much the price of my house would go up as I don t know if I ll live in this one all my life. Good luck with your venture.
  • Sorry Didn t understand question 14
  • Our house is rented so we may not have much say in the final decision to install a new heating system in our property but have answered the questions as based on if we owned our property and therefore had full control over the upkeep and contents.
As you can see one of the recurring comments is what to do about rental properties.  Any bright ideas would be gratefully received!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

New Survey by Nextgen - Please fill in!

I've created a survey to find out what my BLog visitors think of Green issues you can find it here:

Please take a look and fill it in.

Monday, March 8, 2010

All that Glitters is not Green!

I hope that over the last few articles I have established my credentials as an engineer and eco-warrior. Unfortunately not all my decisions have been good ones and purchasing a cheap chinese electric scooter turned out to be one of the most costly mistakes of my life .....

In 2008 I started a 2 year part time MBA course in Leuven. Lectures are on Thursday evenings and Friday afternoons/evenings meaning that two days a week I had to go directly from work in Brussels to Leuven, a journey of 25km and which would be a stretch for my electric bicycle.  More importantly the journey time by bicycle would be about an hour, which would mean I would have had to leave work very early.

For the first term I cycled home and then took the car the rest of the way but this meant my wife could not collect my eldest daughter from Friday nights out with her friends.  Around this time my daughter’s boyfriend got himself a 50cc scooter.  These are tax exempt in Belgium and no number plates are required, as are electric scooters. Encouraged by this thought, I test drove an electric scooter at our local shop in Tervuren but I was not impressed with its performance. Its 750Watt motor seemed much slower even than my electric bike so was not going to solve my problem. After a few weeks of web surfing I came across Elecscoot, a UK company that seemed to have exactly what I was looking for, the Elecscoot 3. The 2008 model (now replaced) claimed to have twin 1500W motors; 4 times more power than the one I had tried. The website claimed that the scooter was capable of 40 miles on a charge, had a top speed of 50mph and came with regenerative braking and Lithium batteries guaranteed for 2 years/2000 charge cycles. The price was just under £2000. It sounded too good to be true, but I found another website (since updated) that seemed to corroborate the bike’s specifications, claiming that the bike came with a 3kWh, 60V Lithium battery pack. Based on my experience, 3kWh seemed to tie in with the claimed specifications. The only downside was that the vendor was in Consett, County Durham so it would have been expensive to arrange a test drive.

After much deliberation and several emails to check the specification with the vendor we took the plunge and ordered the scooter sight unseen. We paid the extra for DHL shipment to Belgium. Even as we unpacked the scooter (see picture above) from its shipping crate alarm bells started to ring. There were scratches all over it. The documentation consisted of a very dubious looking certificate of conformance to EU standards and a single sheet of paper saying that “according to EU regulations this scooter is limited to  45km/h (30mph). This latter fact instantly blew a hole in my use case – how was I going to make the journey time any shorter if the maximum speed was only 45km/hr? I took it for a test drive. There was no evidence of regenerative braking and after just going up and down the road a few times the battery went from apparently full to empty. The motors that were supposedly 1.5kW were clearly marked as 500W motors (see picture) so we had clearly been lied to. We felt like we had been kicked in the teeth.

I immediately wrote a letter of complaint to Elecscoot and emailed it to them. My claim that it did not meet its original specification was not helped by the fact that Elecscoot had cleverly removed all trace of my scooter from their website and had replaced it with a new model with a different specification. For those that are interested I’ve placed a copy of my letter including pictures of the damage here.

We received nothing back from Elecscoot (and still have heard nothing a full year later) so we contacted Tesco VISA (who we bought it through) to dispute the purchase and try to get our money back. They were very reluctant to do anything. One word of warning here – I do NOT recommend using Tesco VISA for internet purchases. It is not, in my opinion, a full service credit card company like Barclaycard.  They do not, as we found out to our cost, do customer service. Tesco’s slogan says “Everly Little Helps”, and in this case it helped very little indeed!! When we lived in the UK our nearest supermarket was a Tesco store and we were loyal customers for over 20 years. This experience has left me so bitter that if and when we move back to the UK I will make a point of ensuring our nearest supermarket is NOT Tesco.

Eventually Tesco told us we would have to get an expert’s opinion on what was wrong the scooter. Hmm, How was I supposed to find an expert on electric scooters? After some digging I found that there was an electrical vehicle group at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), a Dutch language university close to where I worked. I approached them and they said they would be pleased to test it for me, but they would have to fit it into their schedule. I explained that my primary complaint was the range of the scooter. They performed two test runs complete with telemetry. The first run was up and down hills and the scooter managed only 18.5km (11.6 miles) on a charge. The second was on the flat which achieved 25.6km (16 miles). In short, this scooter would not even get me to work and back never mind from home to work to Leuven and back, which is what I had bought it for! The VUB produced a short report and we duly sent it to Tesco only to find out that there was a time limit on getting back to them with a complaint and that time had passed so they were unable to help(!).

In the meantime I had found a whole community of disillusioned Elecscoot owners. A few people also contacted me after I wrote a review slating the product and had similar stories to my own. Some had tried going to Trading Standards. Others had at least managed to get a reply from Elecscoot fobbing them off but no-one did any better than we did. So, having paid for insurance I passed the scooter on to my daughter who could at least use it to get to and from local babysitting jobs.

This situation carried on until mid February when I got a distress call from my daughter because she had crashed the scooter and been thrown off. Luckily she was not badly hurt and I went to look into the damage. I found that the front wheel had completely seized to its spindle and the spindle had turned round and round, coiling the power lead and undoing the wheel nuts as it went.  The power lead quickly became taught and had no doubt pulled the handlebars out of my daughters hands such that she was thrown off.  As far as I can see the scooter is a write-off after only 950km.

If you are considering buying an electric scooter make sure:
  • Its not a cheap chinese import with no-name batteries
  • Inspect it and throroughly test drive itto check its range meets your needs.
  • There is local service and support
  • If you can, get a recommendation from a previous owner, and make sure if there are reviews that they are all positive!
  • Buy it with a Credit Card that you can trust to support you if things go wrong
I now see why the EU restrict these Chinese imports to 30mph. My daughter would have been severely injured had she been going at speed when the accident happened.  Perhaps better though would be for the EU to have tighter type approval procedures and import inspections to stop dangerous scooters from being imported in the first place?

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Down with Uplighters

Up-ligthers have, probably quite rightly, a reputation for being a very inneficient form of lighting.  I thought I would share with you a 1 hour project I undertook last year to radically reduce the carbon footprint of our humble up-lighter.  As we live in rented accommodation we were not keen to spend huge amounts of money on light fittings for our forty square meter lounge.  Instead we bought ourselves a dimmable halogen up-lighter which provided a nice light that could change with our mood and which we could take with us when we moved.  Being a large room we had to have quite a powerful light and the up-lighter we chose used a 300watt halogen bulb.  We use it virtually every evening for 3-4 hours so it probably accounts for 10% of our lighting bill single headedly.

In September last year I was walking through our local DIY superstore when I spotted some GoVenA 20W dimmable compact fluorescents on special offer and immediately got the idea of replacing the halogen bulb with two of these.  [I should say at this point that I am a qualified electrical engineer, but I don’t think that this kind of project is particularly difficult for an average Do-It-Yourselfer with reasonable knowledge of electrics].  In the same store I was able to purchase two bulb holders that came with a screw mount. 

Once home I disconnected the lamp and started to remove the halogen fitting. The up-lighter sits on top of two twisted copper tubes (see above picture). One tube carries the live and the earth wires while the other carried the neutral.   The halogen lamp was strung between them.  Luckily on the fittings there was a screw fixing for part of the halogen lamp assembly which I could use to mount the two new eddison screw fittings.  The only thing that remained was to take a live feed wire to the other side fitting and vice versa for the neutral.  The earth wire remained connected to the metal part of the lamp (see picture, right for finished assembly).  The whole exercise took around an hour and worked perfectly and safely. Actually, as it produces so little heat, its probably safer than the original [HOT!] lamp.

The twin 20W bulbs are easily as bright (if not brighter) at maximum brightness as the 300W halogen was, but uses just 13% of the electricity.  If, as I assume, this one fitting consumed 10% of our lighting power, which In turn is 10% of the electricity we use and that is 20% of our total household energy consumption then I saved 0.17%1 of my total household energy consumption for a cost of around £40.  Better still the light spectrum coming from the bulb is cleaner and whiter than the original halogen bulb and the spectrum remains the same as the light is dimmed.  According to the GoVenA website the lamp can be dimmed to 2% of full power – or just 0.4W per bulb!  These bulbs are extremely efficient even compared to other compact fluorescents.  FYI I found two YouTube videos of a similar bulb here and here.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

What You Can’t Measure, You Can’t Control

The commitment made by 10:10 members is to reduce their carbon footprint by 10% in 2010. This is a very small fraction of the 80% reduction we are told we need to stop global warming so surely it should be possible? But is it so easy? To answer this question we need to apply science, not emotion.
There has been a huge rise in obesity over the last 40 years. Scientists have been looking into this to try to understand why. Most people intuitively link it to the rise in processed “fast” food consumed at home and in restaurants but scientists have found that our daily calorie intake has not significantly changed in the last 40 years. They did, however find a strong correlation between obesity and car ownership. Moreover, the increasing use of cars has led to the demise of the corner shop and replacement with out of town supermarkets such that it is now almost essential to own a car. If it is lifestyle change that is causing the rise in obesity and not our calorie intake, it’s no wonder that most diets don’t work.

We should conclude that a “carbon diet”, like any other diet, will only work if we make significant and permanent lifestyle changes.  Unfortunately as any dieter knows, those diets that include [perceived] depravation or take significant physical or mental effort are very difficult to stick to.  Currently the UK Government is urging its populous to drive “5 miles less per week”.  While the aim is laudable we first should ask “5 miles less than what?”; i.e. how do we know if we are doing it? Counting miles is like counting calories; it’s too hard to do so it won’t work for the majority of us.  Secondly there is an implicit assumption that many journeys are simply not necessary. For most of us going to work, going shopping etc are necessities.  In reality the car is a means to an end, not an end in itself and to affect a cure you have to tackle the disease, not just the symptoms. For instance, according to my brother in law, Professor Gareth Edwards-Jones, half of all so called “food miles” are down to car journeys to and from superstores.  Perhaps the Government should be promoting on-line grocery shopping as a concrete way of saving a trip to the superstore rather than some vague, inaccessible (because it is not measurable) 5 miles per week?

But surely there is a quick fix? Wind energy, solar energy and other renewable energy sources are all laudable goals to pursue but it’s not clear to me whether the whole life-cycle [carbon] costs of some of the proposals are actually higher than the ones they replace. Take the Government car scrappage schemes for instance. While it is clear that new cars produce much less carbon per mile than older ones, how much carbon is produced in making that new car? and how many years could you run the old car on the equivalent carbon saving? Let’s assume that the carbon cost of producing the new car is the equivalent of 1 years fuel consumption.  I have no idea whether this is correct but it sounds reasonable.  Let’s further assume that the new car produces 25% less carbon per kilometer than the old one.  The break even point of the new car would then be after 3 years, by which time the old car would be 13 years old and would probably be scrapped anyway.  I suggest that the car scrappage scheme was more about helping the economy than reducing our collective carbon footprint.

Low energy light bulbs are a clear win-win but even here the actual carbon saving is hard to measure.  According to a BBC article lighting accounts for 19% of global electricity generation, though it does not cite a source. Other sources more targeted towards domestic electricity consumption put this figure closer to 10%.  A quick web search would show that electricity makes up only 16% of the total energy consumed in an average European home.  The consumption of energy in the home is roughly 2x that consumed by the family car(s).  Low energy bulbs save around 75% of electricity.  Replacing all lights with low energy lights would therefore result in a total carbon saving of 10% * 16% * 2/3 * 3/4 = 0.8%, a worthwhile saving, but hardly a magic bullet.  Perhaps less well known is that you could save as much energy by changing your 10+ year old refrigerator to a modern A+ rated one, or even changing your 20 year old central heating pump for a new one.  It is these things, thac consume power 24/7, that are the real electricity hogs.

While many of us know fad diets are doomed to failure, the lack of published (or should I say publicized) science about carbon reduction leaves many of us clutching at straws.  There is a clear need to lower our carbon footprints, what is less clear is how we can achieve it.  We need tools to measure, not Government platitudes if we are to make lasting, positive lifestyle changes. This to me should be the central lobbying effort within 10:10.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Step 3: To insulate or not insulate, that is the question?

We rent a fairly typical medium sized (200m2) Belgian detached house.  Built circa 1970 it has uninsulated cavity walls, concrete floors and ceilings, first generation double glazing and no insulation in the loft.  The house has been rented out for the last 15 years or more and belongs to a retired German gentleman who lives up the road and used to work for the EU. 

In 2008 Electrabel in Belgium hugely increased its gas and electricity prices and put our standing order up to a crippling €420 a month so we approached the landlord to ask him about insulating the house.  At first he was not interested, after all what would he gain from spending the money?  It was not until we threatened to move out that he finally decided to look into it.

As an engineer I compiled a detailed heat loss analysis spreadsheet in support of my cause.  The heat loss at 0oC was a staggering 16.4kW.  I calculated that by insulating the walls and the loft this could be reduced to 7.7kW which would save us around €180 a month.  I was so sure of my figures that to sweeten the deal I offered to pay €500 to the landlord towards the cost.

After some research my landlord decided on the company he wanted to use and got a price of €5600(!) before subsidies.  Electrabel gave a subsidy of 20% and there were other grants available.  There was, however, a problem because most subsidies in Belgium come in the form of tax relief against earnings whereas the landlord paid his taxes directly to the EU.  Fortunately as a German our landlord was very thorough in his due diligence and he eventually got the subsidy up to about 50% and the decision was made to go ahead.

By this time it was winter and the elements were not kind to us.  We had a prolonged cold snap of -11oC and our huge gas boiler was struggling to cope.  Worse the insulation could only be injected when the temperature was 2oC or above so we had to sit it out.  We bought some logs and often lit a fire to help the central heating cope. On the 29th January 2009 the weather was at last warm enough for the work to be carried out.  The concrete floor of the loft was coated with 6cm-8cm of hard insulation foam.  The surface undulates a bit but is hard enough to walk on.  The walls and bedroom ceilings were immediately warmer to the touch and the house felt much warmer with fewer drafts.

One year on our standing order has been decreased to €290 a month and we expect it to go down even further the next time the gas meter is read.  We have already saved our €500 stake and are now into profit.  In absolute terms the full cost is recuperated in less than 4 years.  We were lucky that we were able to convince our landlord that it was a good investment.  In my opinion the Government should oblige all landlords to insulate their rental properties to the highest practical level. They should also allow people equal access to subsidies whether they are tax payers or not.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

10:10 Carbon saving tips: Step 2 - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

After 15 months the company I came to work for in Belgium was closed and I lost my job. This meant having to give back my company car and for the first time in 20 years meant we were down to being a 1 car family!

I managed to do some consulting work to keep a little money coming in and this led to a contract with a small firm in Brussels. By this point our savings were running low and we still did not feel we could buy another car. Luckily about a mile from home there is a tram that costs only €1.25 each way and takes me to within 100 meters to the office.

Good as the tram is, its main issue (like all public transport) is latency. I will explain: At the tram’s maximum speed, 60km/h, the 12km/7.5 mile journey would take 12 minutes. However including all of its stops the total time on the tram is 25 minutes. The Tervuren tram runs every 7 minutes during peak time. I have to change trams at Montgomery and the second tram, though nominally every 5 minutes can keep me waiting over 10 minutes if delayed by traffic. The worst case journey time including this latency is 25+7+10 = 42 minutes, instead of 12 minutes if it was point to point. The shortest journey is 30 minutes and the average 35 minutes. All of this does not include the 1 mile to get to the tram stop, which is a further 10 minutes. This was uncomfortably above my self imposed 30 minute commuting time limit.

For comparison, on the odd occasions I took the car it normally took 30 minutes. The shortest time was 18 minutes and the longest 2 hours 40 minutes (caught in Belgium’s biggest ever traffic jam with 500km of tailbacks across its motorway network). At least one in 5 journeys was over 1 hour.

As spring came I decided to try cycling to work. I’d bought quite a good Cannondale bicycle some years before so as to occasionally cycle to Ely and take the train into Cambridge. I had also cycled to Leuven a few times when the weather allowed. I was impressed that at 48 I could cycle to work in around 35 minutes. For about half of the journey I could take advantage of cycle lanes. I could overtake stationary traffic at junctions which kept my average speed up. Best of all the variance in journey time was low, with the best being 28 minutes and the worst being 40 minutes.

Unfortunately, the journey to work is almost never flat, with two long uphill drags and another two back down. The hill climbing dominated my journey time and I really had to push to keep my average speed up. By the summer I was reaching work in a dripping mess and had to take a shower. Showering added 15 minutes to my journey time and somewhat negated my gains. Nevertheless, the commute now doubled as useful leisure time and I was feeling the benefits of having an hour’s exercise every day so I did not want to give it up!

The answer to improving my work commuting times came in the form of an electric bicycle kit from Alien Ocean in Scotland. They sell electric bicycles from ₤500 but as I already had a good bicycle I decided to go for their Lithium Ion battery plus front wheel motor kit. It was very simple to install and in around two hours my new “electric bike” was ready. The kit, quite rightly, came with its maximum speed set to the EU electric assist limit of 25km/h/ 15mph. Although the assist increased my uphill speed from 6mph to 10mph I could already cycle faster than 15mph on the straight so the gains were a little disappointing. Happily the Alien Ocean kit is designed for both US and EU regulations so I was able, at my discretion, to turn it up to the much more reasonable US limit of 20mph. This probably means my electric bike is illegal but I figure if it means I can save the environment it is a transgression I would stand up for.

My journey time is now comfortably and reliably under 30 minutes. The motor is driven by a thumb throttle so I still get as much exercise as I want. On the straight I get a small amount of assist, perhaps 1 or 2 mph. On the hills the adjusted electric assist is closer to its maximum power of 250watt and has added another 2mph to 12mph. The 360WHr battery will just manage 2 days or 48km (30 miles) on a charge, which is lucky given I have forgotten to charge it overnight on several occasions. A days commuting costs just 0.2kWh/€0.03. Better still it meant we could comfortably run one car instead of two which is a massive saving in both cost and carbon footprint.

There is one word of caution however. It is more dangerous to cycle than it should be. I’ve been cut up by thoughtless car drivers on 7 separate occasions and actually collided with cars twice, once while I was in the cycle lane! If Governments really wants to promote cycling then they must do more to protect cycling from other road vehicles and, arguably, less to protect cyclists from themselves. In my opinion the 15mph limit makes the electric bicycle unattractive as a commuting vehicle; the Government should trust cyclists to use their discretion, after all they don’t limit cars to 70mph!

[The bike, including battery (back) and electric motor (centre of front wheel)]

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

I could not put it better myself ...

As the debate about whether climate change is happening continues to rage, here is a man who not only has my opinion on this, but manages to say it much better than I ever could.

Check it out for yourself!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

10:10 Carbon saving tips: Step 1: Location, Location, Location

In 2006 we took the first big step towards a lower carbon lifestyle by moving to Belgium. Not that Belgium has an inherently lower carbon lifestyle than the UK.

Perhaps I should explain….

Our house in the UK was a stereotypical Victorian farmhouse 20 miles from Cambridge in a beautifully rural setting. We originally bought the house because of its low price; there was no way we could have afforded 4 four bedroom detached house set in 1/3 of an acre in, or close to Cambridge. At that time the 20 mile commute to work did not seem too bad. Of course in the 15 years we lived there the number of cars on the road doubled and the price of petrol tripled. Our two cars were clocking up over 30,000 miles per year between them and we were filling them with petrol almost weekly. The commute had gone over the (for me) magic half an hour barrier and was becoming a chore. I know thousands of people have much longer commutes, that’s partly down to personal choice, but I would argue that more than half an hour is not only bad for your lifestyle its almost certainly bad for the environment too.

When I took a job in Belgium we were determined not to have a long commute. Luckily house prices in Tervuren, the “Surrey commuter belt” of Belgium are around the same as Cambridge. We were able to rent a house a 7 minute cycle ride away from the British School of Brussels so our daughter replaced the 5 mile school bus run with a short cycle to school. My first job was in Leuven and it was a 20 minute, 20km (~12.5 miles) drive from home. We took the opportunity to change my right hand drive petrol car for a left hand drive diesel (diesel is significantly cheaper than petrol in Belgium) and in one stroke took 60% plus off our commuting carbon footprint.

So is Belgium doing better at being “carbon friendly”. Yes and no. Its true that the house prices are lower, but Belgian taxes are cripplingly high so the average Belgian’s ability to afford housing close to Brussels (where most of the work is) is no better than the average London commuter. However the high taxes do allow the Government to put its money where its mouth is, with better grants for home insulation and other subsidies, unlike (it would seem) the UK Government.

Personally I have never understood why so many people must literally waste their lives (and fossil fuels) commuting vast distances to work and back each day. Perhaps if all the London firms were forced to pay wages high enough that all their staff could live within walking distance of their office they would think again about the “economies of scale” of being there. The commuters are, in effect, subsidising the companies by allowing themselves to be exploited.

I would like to see Government take the lead in encouraging businesses to deploy several regional offices rather than huge, monolithic offices in the city. Moreover, if the wealth was spread more evenly around the country and not just the overcrowded south east, house prices would balance out and everyone would be better off. In the computer age there simply isn’t a need for all this travel – let the data do the travelling, not the people. I can choose to share my extra half hour per day with my employer, be more productive, save the planet, and still have more leisure time – a real win, win, win!