Saturday, January 15, 2011

Heat 2010 – A lot of hot air?

At the end of last year I attended the HEAT2010 conference in Cambridge. This small, one day event organized by CIR is one of many they organize yearly on different Carbon technology topics. As I walked in from the snow outside, several exhibitors were showing off their technologies.
What looked like a gas boiler took my eye.  Indeed it was a gas boiler but with a difference.  Built by Genlec of Chester, it included a organic Rankin cycle electricity generator using a scroll compressor in reverse.  Thye claimed that in addition to the 10kW of heat, generated by the condensing gas boiler at 93% efficiency, the unit also generates 1kW of electricity.  The business model is interesting as, unlike the sterling engine based Whispergen, it is a standard form factor wall mounted boiler which would be easy to retrofit.  The price was said to be “about £800 more than a normal gas boiler installation”.  The prices they were using for gas and electricity respectively were 3p and 13p and I presume therefore that there is a saving of around 10p per kW.  The unit needs to run for 8000 hours to generate a payback. They claim that this translated to a payback period of ~4 years, which does seem reasonable.  Assuming a 4 month heating cycle (120 days * 4 = 480 days), the unit would have to be running an average of 16 hours per day.  That seems a little high but it is at least less than 24 ;o).  To be fair, if the boiler is also used for hot water then it will be on all year round. However, I would assume that your average eco-warrier would install solar water heating at the same time.  Nevertheless a 4 year payback is a no-brainer.

A less convincing technology was being demonstrated by a sister company, Vphase.  This company claimed to “fix the mains input to the house”.  When I asked what this meant I was told that "as the voltage into the house fluctuates, energy can be wasted".  The unit always regulates the incoming voltage down to 220V, which saves 10% compared to running appliances at 250V.   This is undoubtedly true but if it’s a Kettle then that extra 10% heats the water up more quickly and so stops 10% earlier so nothing is actually saved.  Worse, I’m guessing this unit is not 100% efficient in its conversion, so under these circumstances its actually worse than nothing?

Right next to this stand was another innovative company promoting low voltage DC distribution around the home.  They hijacked the domestic lighting circuit to do this.  On the face of it this is an excellent idea and one I’ve thought of myself.  Now that we are moving over to LED and/or compact fluorescent lighting the lighting load has gone down by a factor of 5-6.  We could therefore use the same wires but send 50V DC (1/5 of the voltage) without putting any extra load on the cable.  This 50V DC could easily be supplied by Photovoltaic cells with battery backup and indeed this company was including this in its offering.  However in my opinion they had gone one stage too far – with a protocol whereby things could ask for a specific voltage to be supplied and that that voltage would be supplied at high efficiency to the requesting device. IMHO they failed the KISS test.  I also asked them about regulatory compliance – i.e. had they talked to the people who wrote the building regulations to see what they thought of it.  The answer was that there was no need as the units were officially covered by the EU low voltage directive.  This of course is probably true, but how does your eco-warrier manage to sell his house after it has been doctored in such a way?

The next stand displayed some smart meters developed by Cambridge Design Partnership.  CDP's rapid development pitch was very impressive and the unit featured an interesting algorithm for looking at the profile of electricity usage to deduce (guess?) where the power was going.  This let to some interesting debate as to whether knowledge of what was being used where would lead to a change in usage patterns.  I tend to agree with the person who said “I know where all the petrol goes in my car, but it does not stop me driving and filling up once a week”.  IMHO Knowledge without control/choice is, unfortunately, a recipe for frustration and very little else.

So what about the conference itself?  The day was filled with interesting presentations (see here for the list) by numerous people. By the end of the day, however, I realized that most of the speakers were preaching to the converted.  They were all trying to sell their ideas to each other; there were no real customers to sell to.   The lack of real progress in the “fight against climate change” was mentioned several times and each time the frustration in peoples voices was apparent. What was also clear was that if I had not gone to this event then I would not have found out about these great pieces of technology and therein lies the problem; Unless we get the benefits in front of customers we will not save any carbon at all - it will all be just a lot of hot air! Scientist and engineers on their own won’t save the planet, though marketeers might?  

I would normally have finished this blog "on that bombshell" (as Jeremy Clarkson would say) but I just want the explore a plea from one of the speakers, interestingly the promoter of the micro-CHP mentioned above.  He believed that the best way to get Green technologies into market was to force them using government legislation.  I have some sympathy with this view.  After all, seat belts were made compulsory and saved countless lives as a result.  One generation on, seatbelts have been accepted by the vast majority. The UK building regulations have been progressively pushed in the direction of higher and higher energy efficiency but is this really the answer?  

Anyone who has seen “The Age of Stupid” has seen how resistant people can be to change.  People see loss before they see gain which is why there are so many NIMBYs and nay-sayers on the whole global warming issue.  I believe that to force people into spending money they don’t want to on benefits they cannot see will just aggravate them and make them even more resistant.  Better to educate them and present win-win solutions that will save both money and the planet.   The test that any technology needs to pass is will it be a win-win for its customers.  We don’t need technologies looking for a market, we need technologies that fit the market. Engineers - get out of your silo's and learn how to do marketing.

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