Friday, 19 October 2012

Local food webs and competition for resources

Recently I've been two Transition Town meetings that have mentioned mapping out food resources within a local area, usually defined as within at most 30km from the centre of the town in question. The first was a passing mention at Loughborough's Food & Gardens sub-group meeting a few weeks ago when we were discussing supporting local agriculture.  Then last night at the Transition Stratford AGM it was suggested that looking at a "30:30 Challenge" might be interesting - sourcing all your food from within 30km for 30 days.

Both of these got me thinking on several fronts:

  • What food resources are actually grown/raised/processed within 30km?
  • What are the energy costs of these crops, compared to crops produced further away?
  • What foods will we have to do without if we restrict ourselves to a 30:30 style diet?
  • If we all did 30:30 diets, who would we be "competing" with for food resources within the 30km radius?
The first item on that list is going to need a bit of solid research, as its not always obvious what is grown locally or how the average consumer can access it.  For example just because we can see a field of wheat down the road, it doesn't mean that we can actually buy flour locally made from just the wheat - it might well be harvested and then shipped many miles away for milling, getting mixed with other wheat in the process.  Local flour mills do exist, but all too often they use grains shipped in from smaller, specialist farms elsewhere!

The energy costs one is another interesting topic.  Just because we can grow something locally does not necessarily mean that its carbon footprint is lower than something grown further away. The classic example is soft fruits that need lots of heating and nutrients to be grown under glass in the UK, whereas the same fruit grown in the Mediterranean can benefit from the warmer climate, which offsets the carbon cost of the delivery journey.  Of course if most of your fruit and veg can come from Grow Your Own beds in your back yard, community garden  or nearby allotment, you stand a good chance of having a low footprint, which will really help in a 30:30 Challenge.

"Doing without" sounds like something from wartime rationing, but we'll need to realise that there are some foods that we just can't grow in the UK.  Common ones would be rice and tea in commercial quantities (although there are some small tea plantations down in the South West we will have to have a lot more climate change induced warming to get them going in the Midlands!). For an artificial 30:30 Challenge we'll just have to grin and bear it; as Peak Oil starts to really bite we might find that foods that have become staples over the last 50 years go back to being rare treats.  What will go and what can we substitute for it?  Will acorn "coffee" make a come back?

However its the last item on the list that really intrigued me.  If a single Transition Town does something like a 30:30 Challenge now, its a great way of encouraging people to think about local food webs, growing their own and promoting such things to the wider population.  But if the fossil fuel dependent food distribution system does buckle and everyone has to get down to doing this, there'll be a heck of a lot of people competing for those local food resources.

And its not just the people you share your town with: those 30km local food webs will be drawn around every population centre.  If you're in a small market town surrounded by rolling fields you might think you'll be OK, until you realise that the other side of those fields are surrounded by large towns and cities with tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of hungry mouths to feed.

Lets take Stratford-upon-Avon as an example.  Here's a Google Earth map with a 30km yellow circle centred on Stratford's public library (which is pretty much in the centre of the town).
Lots of lovely green space around the area, and plenty of agricultural activity within that, so Stratford looks like its got a good chance to source lots of its food from the local area.  However now lets look at the 30km local food webs around nearby towns and cities.  We'll limit ourselves at this point to just the towns and cities that are at least as big as Stratford-upon-Avon in population; that's over 25,000 people roughly:
Hmm, each of those purple circles is somebody else's local food web - notice how there isn't any of Stratford's yellow circle that doesn't intersect with at least one purple circle - often more than one.

So there's going to be lots of competition for these local food resources in the 30km radius.  Its also worth being in mind that those 30km circles don't show you the relative population that's going to be seeking the food.  Stratford's yellow circle will have just over 25,000 townsfolk looking to acquire locally grown grains, fruit, vegetables and livestock.  However the Coventry circle has over 300,000 people with in it and around half the area of their 30km local food web is coincident with about half the Stratford one - that's roughly an order of magnitude more people just from that one city alone looking to be supported by just under half the area of Stratford's local food web.  And just up the road from Coventry there's Birmingham with over a million souls to support.  That's just two of the 11 competitors I've generated circles for - that's ignoring the thousands living in smaller towns and villages in the area as well.

So what does this tell us? First that, whilst a 30:30 Challenge is a good bit of PR and helps people think about local food, it obviously isn't a mechanism for preparing for a post Peak Oil world where we will be more heavily dependent on local resources.  Who is planning for these sort of issues? Central Government?  Local councils?  Community groups?  Transition Towns can play a part in that  but we will a'll really need to step up our game.  If its a slow decline this can be done, but what happens if the oil crisis hits more rapidly?  Could well be very unpleasant.

Secondly, I think it indicates that a fixed 30km radius is a fossil fuel world's view of "local".  In a future world where we'll need to be more frugal with our energy use and thus where that is heavy competition for the agricultural resources found between settlements, we'll have to potentially look at a radius dependent on population density.  The carrying capacity of the land will depend on what is grown and how, but densely populated urban areas will need to access a bigger "hinterland" than smaller, less heavily populated rural towns.  Thus whilst a large city might be looking 30, 40 or 50km away for food resources to feed its citizens, smaller towns and villages may well have to focus on a far more localised food web, as the resources further out will already be being claimed by the large towns and cities.  10km?  Maybe less than 5km? 

Thirdly, we need to remember that we are living in a post-industrial country with over 60 million people, not a mostly agrarian medieval society with a few million stomachs walking about. Industrialised agriculture and imports keeps us fed at the moment and those rely on fossil fuels. Maybe we need to move beyond just thinking about locally grown produce, artisan bakers and community gardens  but also be actively looking at low energy ways of mass producing food and providing low carbon bulk shipments from where there is plenty of unpopulated land.  

Tricky big problems.  And really, hiding the shadows we come back to the unpopular question that we all so often try to avoid: do we have too many people for a post Peak Oil world?  If we do, how can we "solve" that problem before nature and simple maths starts to solve it for us?

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Small scale wheat growing big effects

This year we've grown wheat on the allotment.  Its part of the Garden Organic member's experimental trials programme, but its not something we've done before.  In fact we've only ever grown one grain before - quiona - which grew OK but was a pain to harvest, thresh and winnow, especially as it looked pretty similar to some of the related weeds growing on the plot.  Quiona is something that we only use very, very occasionally, so after the hassle it didn't seem worth bothering with again.  Wheat on the other hand is a major part of our day to day diet, so growing a bit ourselves sounded jolly interesting.

Our trial plot is pretty tiny - about 1m wide by 2m long.  According to the GO instructions this should get us enough wheat for two loaves of bread.  What GO are interested in is how well the wheat grew and how we process and use it - they want to know if domestic scale grain growing is something that more gardeners might be interested in.

Our patch grew OK despite the manky summer we've had this year.  It needed the odd weeding but didn't need much else - certainly no watering with the amount of rain we've had!  We ended up with a nice sheaf of golden wheat sitting in the corner of my workshop to dry out a couple of weeks ago.

Now I've been slightly incapacitated recently (a long and rather unpleasant story I won't go into here) so it came to pass that yesterday I was on enforced light duties (or "rest" as my other half and the doctors had insisted).  It was nice a sunny so I managed to persuade She Who Must Be Obeyed that I wouldn't explode or fall apart if allowed to sit in the sun down in the door way of my workshop and slowly thresh the wheat by hand.

What I ended up doing was removing the ears by hand a stalk or two at a time: not at all the process I'd originally intended (I was planning on putting them on a sheet and then jumping up and down to release the grains and chaff, but I doubt m'lady would have considered that "rest" and neither would my body probably).  Massively time consuming, and indeed I've got a third still to do, but it was rather pleasant sitting in the warm late summer sun dealing with our harvest, listening to the wireless (a workshop has to come with a hand-me-down wireless!) and time to think.

Fiddling with the ears I began to realize the amount of effort that goes into the flour and breads that we all take for granted in the modern world.  Its something I "knew" already, but this was making it real.  Even though I bake my own bread, I buy in the flour, yeast, salt and sugar and usually leave the actual process to the bread machine sitting on the corner of my kitchen counter.  Yet here I was getting close and personal with part of the process of getting that flour from something we scattered on the ground some months before.  Obviously farm scale wheat growers and millers don't have folk hand shacking the ears, but just think of the energy use that is going into the process instead: the fuel for the combine harvesters, the transport to the mill, the power operating the milling machines and then the storage and transport to the end user.  All hidden away from most people by a brown loaf in a plastic bag on a supermarket shelf.

Now whilst I'm only going to get a loaf or two out of our little two square metre patch of wheat, I'm beginning to feel that there's a greater value in growing such a small amount.  It provides an education and a reconnection, another part of the food web laid bare.  It might not be the crop to grow on your plot if you're after maximum production, but it could well be a great use of a little space in school and community gardens where folk could once again experience the full "pot to plate" experience of growing, processing and cooking.  Its a talking point and the start of discussions and ideas.

We should be thankful for our daily bread, and doing this experiment has reawakened that for me.  And if the experiment does nothing else, that's a good result for me.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

LibraryThing, Android and a cool ZXing barcode feature

I use LibraryThing to manage my personal book collection.  Its a handy way of tracking what books I've bought and what I've leant out to folk.  What I really want though is to be able to check LibraryThing quickly and easily whilst I'm schmoozing the shelves in the local second hand book shops, mostly so that I don't accidentally buy another copy of a book I've already got (again!).

Luckily I've usually got an Android phone sitting in my pocket, which has a camera (two actually) and the handy ZXing barcode scanning app installed.  I've played with the barcode scanner using Perl under SL4A and was able to capture ISBN barcodes and check them against a list I held on the phone.    However the script was rather basic and getting my collection data out of LibraryThing would be a bit of a pain, as the SL4A version of Perl has neither a copy of the LWP web access module, nor a (working) version of CPAN with which to install it.  It does have IO::Socket so I started along that track to build a pure Perl client from the ground up - a bit long winded but doable.  Writing a decent UI in Perl using the Android API exposed by SL4A would be a bit of a pain though.

However last night I got distracted rereading the online version of a book I'd read in paper form when I first got my Android phone: the excellent  Building Android Apps with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript by Jonathan Stark.  This describes how you can optimise web pages to the Android platform using HTML 5 and JavaScript and, more importantly, then use those pages as the basis for a native app.  So this morning I sat down and had a bit of a tinker.

Its surprisingly easy to knock together something that looks fairly respectable quite quickly, especially as you can crib from Jonathan's existing code frame work.  Within an hour or so I'd got a simple web page using JQTouch running that allowed me to fetch my LibraryThing collection (using their JSON Books API), list the works on that I've got in my collection (including pulling cover art from LibraryThing where available) and check if a book is in my list by manually entering its ISBN.  Jonathan explained in the book how you can use localStorage and the HTML 5 database features to provide stand alone storage on the phone, and the JQTouch provides exciting UI animations, etc, whilst allowing the use of the JQuery compatible(ish) Zepos library to handle the AJAX/JSONP stuff.

So that's the heavy lifting done for talking to LibraryThing: now how do I get barcode scanning to work?  Turns out after some researching there's several options (probably even more than this if I really put my mind to it - for example the hardcore Java coders would probably add hacking up their own version of ZXing to the list):

  1. I could turn the HTML/JavaScript/CSS into a native Android app using PhoneGap.  This has several advantages: you can access the barcode scanner directly using a PhoneGap extension, you won't need a network connection whilst scanning if you've already downloaded a local copy of your LibraryThing collections and you'll end up with an .apk archive that folk can easily download and can be put on the Android marketplace (or Google Play or whatever its called this week).
  2. I could go back to the SL4A Perl script and use the HTML/Javascript/CSS as a front end (or replicate it using the SL4A UI calls) and then call the barcode scanner Intent from there.  Bit messy and it wouldn't be terribly easy to give to other people.
  3. Stick with the web delivered application and make use of a cool feature of ZXing that I've only just come across today: ZXing intercepts links in web pages that have a target of, and either fires up the barcode scanner or asks the user if they'd like to install it to use.  Assuming the barcode scanner is installed and working, you can then scan a barcode which can then gets sent to a URL of your choice.  This does mean that there's a need for a server side application to collect the scanned data, but I'm wondering if I can work round that using some sort of local URL to the phone. More playing needed really - at the moment I've just tested the system by pointing ZXing at the LibraryThing works URL once it has captured a barcode and that seems to work fine.  Apparently there's a similar URL that you can using on iOS devices that have ZXing installed (but I've not got one of those so can't try it myself).
  4. Forget the whole thing once I'd realised that the standard ZXing barcode scanner app has the ability to have a custom search URL defined which can be set to "".  Then clicking on the custom search button once a barcode has been recognised will whisk you off to LibraryThing, which (at least for me) automatically logs me in thanks to stored cookies.  This works fine, though the downside is that you need a live network connection obviously.
In case anyone is interested I've popped the "ALT" web application online if you fancy playing with it.  Even if I don't go down the route of turning that into a native app using PhoneGap, its been interesting to see how far CSS hackery lets you tart up web pages for mobile devices - useful skillz to tuck away for the future no doubt.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Garden Organic trials progress

A while back I posted about our tomato plants that form part of Garden Organic's blight resistant tomato plant trials.  We'll since then we've had some potential blight appearing on the leaves of some of the A, C and D varieties, and as of this week a few ripe tomatoes from A and C, both of which seemed quite tasty (both on their own and halved, then popped on top of homous on a water cracker.  Looked like a sort of flat savoury cup cake!).  Lots more green tomatoes, especially on variety A.

Variety B has much greener, healthier looking foliage than the others, but has only just flowered.  Its obviously a later type - either that or its poor germination and the rotten summer haven't helped it.  I've a sneaking feeling that B is the odd one out... either that's the very blight resistant variety or else its some sort of control variety.

We're also taking part in the Garden Organic small scale wheat experiment.  This means growing a two square metre bed of organic wheat supplied by GO, and then recording how it was sown, grown, harvested, threshed, winnowed and used.  We've gone throw sowing, growing and now just done harvesting.  We got a good size wheat sheaf out of the bed - a bit green tinged in places but I've read recently that's OK, and lots of the farmers round here have been harvesting their crops so I guess its a good time to get it in.  Just as well, as its rained on and off for the past two days since we cut it.  Its currently sitting in my workshop out of the rain to finish drying off.

Next we'll have to thresh the wheat to release the dried grains from the stalks.  I've a cunning plan for this: I'm going to hold bunches of stalks upside down in a 25 litre brewing mash bucket and whack the heads against the sides!  This will hopefully knock the grains out and capture them into the bucket.  Winnowing is going to be more interesting: I tried doing it a few years ago when harvesting some quiona and wasn't terribly adept at the operation.  I ended up picking the chaff out by hand after coating the attic floor in seed/chaff mixture!

Assuming I'm less fumble fingered and we end up with a small measuring jug of grain, the next thing to do will be to use the grain in cooking.  I'd planned on trying to use it to make a loaf of bread in our Panasonic bread maker, but to do that we'll need to work out how to grind the grains into flour.  I did some web searching for domestic grain mills and, whilst they exist, they're pretty dear, especially for a one off experiment.  I did find a grinding mill in Lakeland for just under twenty quid  but it didn't mention "grains" amongst the things it would mince or grind (meat, vegetables, nuts, beans).  Might still get one though as it might be handy for make veg/nut/bean spreads and it can also turn out some pasta as well.  I'll also keep a weather eye on the local second hand shops - you never know if an old hand mill might turn up. I'll add it to my list of 2nd hand items I look for when mooching round such shops - still not spotted any fruit presses or large maslin pans yet!

Friday, 22 June 2012

Getting bikes on trains

I'm a non-driver, so I'm often found taking trains around the country.  I'm also not a cyclist, but that's mostly because my girlfriend has banned me from "pedalling the pedals" for the safety of both myself and those around me (I admit I can get rather easily distracted or absorbed in thought - more than once I've done the hour long walk to work and suddenly realised as I opened the building door that I couldn't  remember actually crossing any of the roads to get there!).  However I think cycling is a great way of commuting for folk how are a bit more mentally with it.  If you live within 5 miles of work, cycling directly there should be something you should consider for your own health, to help reduce road congestion and help cut down on pollution.

Couple a bike with a commuter train and you've potentially got a great commuter transport option: cycle to the station, catch the train with your bike and then hop back on the bicycle for a quick cycle to your place of work/education.  I know several people who do just that, coming to Loughborough from Nottingham, Derby or Leicester, and I've seen people at Loughborough station who are obviously doing the opposite run.

Whilst I'm a non-cyclist my train usage means I've seen plenty of bikes, both "folders" and normal non-folding examples, popped into carriage vestibules or wedged into one of the little cycle spaces that are provided on some services.  I'm also old enough that I can remember "proper trains" with large guards vans that could take large numbers of bikes (and push chairs and folks in wheelchairs and large luggage) that unfortunately modern train designs have swept away.  Thus I'm very aware that there's not actually that much space available for bikes, although what space is available seems to be offered for free to riders by most train companies.

Today there's a bus drivers strike going on in London, and I noticed that Chiltern Railways (one of the best UK train operating companies in my experience) where encouraging folk to walk or cycle where possible when they got to the capital.  My first thought was "good on yer Chiltern Railways for promoting walking and cycling".  Then I thought, "hmm, I wonder how many bikes they can get on each train to allow this?"  A bit of Googling threw up the AtoB website's cycles and trains page, which seemed to unfortunately indicate that cycles aren't allowed on some of their peak period trains!  You'd think they'd at least allow

However the thing that really struck me was the wide range of rules and regulations on cycle carriage from all the train operating companies.  Even companies that are using more or less the same rolling stock have completely different rules and attitudes to cycle carriage on their trains.  The fact that lots of them seem to restrict (at least on paper) the carriage of cycles, even folding cycles in some cases, on peak hour trains rather stuffs up the cycle-train-cycle commuting option for many people.  I guess at least if you are a regular commuter you can get used to rules implemented by the particular train operating company(s) that you regularly use.  However this mish-mash of contradictory regulations doesn't encourage the occasional use of cycles for the first/last mile of other, less regular train journeys such as people going to meetings, visiting granny, nipping to a city for shopping, etc, especially as those sorts of journeys are more likely to require changes between different train operating companies.

In the past the Government via the Office of the Rail Regulator has got the train operating companies together via their ATOC association to force them to review and try to simplify ticketing rules (with admittedly limited success).  I wonder if they, or anyone else with some clout, are capable of getting the cycle carriage rules standardised across the network (or at least across identical rolling stock)?  I guess another solution would be a national "Boris Bike" scheme were you could pick up a loaner bike for a few hours at every railway station but that's another post for another day!

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Garden Organic Members' Experiments Progress

A while back m'lady and I decided to take part in a couple of the Garden Organic members' experiments. We opted for the garden scale wheat trial and the blight resistant tomato tests.  After a tense couple of weeks of waiting to see if we were accepted (being new boy late comers to this game) we received a pleasingly chunky envelope containing the required seeds, some background information and the data sheets we needed to complete for each trial.

We quickly got a bed at the allotment prepared for the wheat - cleared of weeds, levelled and then had the wheat seed broadcast across it.  A quick raking over and that was the wheat trial under way for us - all done by the middle of April.  Within a couple of weeks the first little green leaves were already showing, although the progress was a bit slow after that thanks to the rather odd Spring weather this year.  Still, nothing much to be done with the wheat now until late July when, hopefully, we'll be harvesting golden ears and working out how to thresh, mill and bake with them (which is really the main reason behind the experiment - can a small patch of wheat be grown by gardeners and then turned into something useful).

Meanwhile the tomato experiment could get underway indoors, despite the toms actually being outdoor varieties.  The point of this experiment is to trial four different tomato varieties and see what their resistance is to the evil blight (Phytophthora infestans for those playing along at home).  Blight is something we've been cursed with before - we lost an entire main crop potato harvest three or four years ago, and then some almost ripe tomatoes the following year - so this an experiment we're obviously rather interested in.  I can't tell you much about the varieties we're growing as they are only known to us as the mysterious labels A, B, C and D.

Once 10 seeds each of A, B, C and D were sown, they rested in the propagator in m'lady's lounge window sill, alongside our normal indoor toms.  The weather decided to be grey, manky and cold for weeks on end, so germination was a bit slow at first.  Eventually A, C and D got going (along with our normal, non-experimental toms) and between 5 and 9 little seedlings appeared in the pots.  Tomato B steadfastly refused to germinate though - we thought at one point it was going to be a complete no-show.  Eventually one little 'B' appeared and after waiting for some weeks (during which A, C, D were growing madly) we resigned ourselves to only having one Tom B for the trial
The tomato experimental subjects
Today was "potting on and putting out" day.  One each of A, B, C and D got put into 8 litre pots containing a mixture of home made compost topped off with some Vital Earth vegetable compost and a handful of slow release organic fertilizer.  Due to my poor planning and thus a slight lack of veg compost we then potted up two more each of A, C and D, and all of these got popped outside on m'lady's patio to soak up the gentle Summer sun.  Or as it turns out on this royal Bank Holiday weekend, soak up the gentle English rain.

We've sourced some more compost (last bag of Vital Earth veg compost at Charlecote Garden Centre, which I think demonstrates how good it is compared to the masses of some other brands still stacked on pallets there) and we'll pot up some more of A, C and D later today.  These will also get squeezed in somewhere in m'lady's increasingly well filled back garden.  Who wants scented roses when there's some serious garden science to be done, eh?

Then bizarrely we actually need some more of the warm English rain, as that's what spreads the blight spores.  Apparently this experiment is a rerun of a similar trial made last year, when it wasn't wet enough during the tomato growing season and thus few people had blight hit their trial toms.  I'm in two minds really.  I'd like to get some useful results for the Garden Organic folk from this experiment which may help long term in providing blight resistant tomato strains.  On the other hand I'd really like to see what toms A, B, C and D actually taste like.  After all there'd be little point in growing blight-proof toms that taste like supermarket commercial varieties!

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Will the Night Mail Return?

Back when I was a nipper, British Rail used to run a fair few trains during the wee hours of the night.  The night mails and the newspaper trains.  Back in the days of yore some of these had passenger accommodation tacked on so that you could, if you wished, get an inter-city service well after the pubs had shut (not that that was a major factor for a nipper, especially as I'm tea-total).

These train services have long since disappeared.  The newspaper trains were the first to go as production of newspapers was decentralised and so large volumes of paper didn't need to be shifted from London to the provinces.  The mail trains became dedicated services with no passenger stock added, and then the mail trains themselves passed into history, replaced by yet more lorries trundling along the motorways and trunk roads of Britain.  We've still got a rump of the old sleeper services, which I used a couple of years ago to get up to Scotland for a holiday with my girlfriend, but they're more the exception than the rule now, and may soon be no more when ScotRail's franchise is renewed in 2014.

So you're probably asking now why Jim'll is wittering on about the overnight trains of yesteryear?  Well, bear with me!

I've been considering transport energy use (for which there's another one of my long, dull, full-of-numbers blog posts brewing!) and I've just been watching Robert Llewelyn's Fully Charged episode on the National Grid control centre.  With oil prices constantly on the rise, looking at alternative transport options such as electric vehicles is a sensible thing to be doing now.

During Robert's show, the National Grid control chap said that power generation would be more efficient if the overnight "bath tub" lull in electricity demand could be "filled up".  In other words it would be more efficient to generate a bit less energy during the day, if we could use more at night to offset the daytime reduction.  In the Fully Charged show they were talking about the charging of electric vehicles over night, which the National Grid controller said might eventually consume about a gigawatt overnight, which would help fill the bath tub up slightly, but when the national peak energy use is between 40-60GW, there's quite a bit more capacity to use up.

So we obviously need to think of more things that could be run overnight using the cheaper off peak electricity.  There's plenty of options of course - dish washers, washing machines, etc in the home, lots of industrial processes could be run 24/7, and we could use cheap overnight power for hydrogen cracking or even synthesising liquid hydro-carbon fuels from air and water.

Now what about those overnight trains?  A single electric express train uses several megawatts to get up to speed and there are plans afoot to get more the UK rail network electrified (for example Loughborough's MP recently debated the electrification of the Midland Mainline in Parliament).  The rail network is also increasingly popular and thus increasingly over crowded.  Even during the day and weekend intercity services are often standing room only - its not just the peak hours services. There are more expensive infrastructure projects intended to help with that by laying extra tracks or building new lines - High Speed 2 being an example - but we need to make better use of the infrastructure we've already got as well.

So what if we tried to move some people around the country using cheap overnight power using electric rail traction?  If the tickets prices were suitably attractive there's probably quite a few people who would want to take advantage of such trains.  The current sleeper services definitely aren't cheap (though often cheaper than the train plus a hotel at the far end, plus quite convenient), but there's always folk on the bargain basement cross country road coaches, so there's probably a market there.  The ticket prices would need to cover the electricity costs (which are cheaper overnight remember), the staff to run the service and the service's share of track and station maintenance costs.  The Train Operating Companies can already sell some tickets on less popular services at knock down prices, so we might well be looking at similar prices for a "Witching Hour" overnight ticket.

If we want a modal shift in transportation in a world where oil is getting increasingly expensive maybe the rail companies should get together with the National Grid and see if there's a way they can help move people around more efficiently.  Efficient use of rail infrastructure coupled with efficient use of power generation and distribution infrastructure seems to be a good idea to me, especially if it means being able to get back from a gig in London in the wee hours!

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Shedding some light on commercial lighting

After my last blog post looking at electricity usage in Loughborough as the first part of an Energy Descent plan for Loughborough, my chum Martin asked what proportion of energy is wasted lighting up offices and shops when they are closed?  This is a very good question as I've often bemoaned the lights left on in shops when I walk through the town centre late at night.

At the University where I work some of the offices have motion sensors attached to the lighting, so the lights switch off 15-20 minutes after the last people have left (or if I sit too still in the evening!).  Not all the University buildings have this feature, and even in buildings where some offices do have it other areas don't (for example I often have to turn off the lights in the kitchens and mezzanine service areas on my way out, as they aren't on sensors and most people don't seem to know what the little switch on the wall does, despite having energy saving advice stickers attached to them recently!).

So how much energy are these shops and offices using, and can we work out (or at least guesstimate!) what sort of energy is being wasted by leaving the lights on all night?  The first question is quite easy to answer, because the DECC have a handy summary of "service sector"  energy use(which includes retail and commercial offices, as well as sports facilities, government offices, health, education and few other bits and bobs.  It doesn't include the "industrial" users such as factories, mines and construction).

The summary tells use that lighting is responsible for 21% of the sector's total energy use, which in turn was 18,357 thousand tonnes of oil equivalent in 2010.

Now what we need to do is convert "thousand tonnes of oil equivalent" into something a bit more familiar - good old kWh.  The conversion factor is quite simple:

1 ktoe = 11630000 kWh

So the 18,357ktoe is equivalent to 213491910000kWh, or  213.49191TWh.  The lighting is 21% of that, so 44.8333011TWh.

Now that's a fair chunk of energy in lighting all those offices, shops, schools, warehouses, etc.  But what proportion of that is unnecessary?  I guess we now need to think about what we mean by "unnecessary"?  There's some obvious ones:
  • Lighting the internal areas of shops and offices when there's nobody working there,
  • Lighting external areas when there is nobody around in the wee hours,
  • Uplighting buildings for purely aesthetic reasons (some of which seems to be left on during daylight!).
But what about the less obvious wasting of energy for lighting?  For example there's some evidence that since the 1950s there has been an increasing amount of "over illumination", especially in parts of the retail sector.  If we've got people using more light than they really need for tasks, then that's wasting energy.

There's also the plea that some people raise that lights are left on at night for security.  The idea is that you'd be able to see criminals doing their nefarious deeds if the rooms are all illuminated.  However it doesn't seem to work out like that - if there are few people around in the middle of the night there aren't going to be many witnesses.  Even if there were passers by, seeing lights being turned on or torches flashing in an otherwise normally dark building may be just as good a give away of naughtiness happening.  Indeed the criminals usually need light to do whatever it is they shouldn't be doing, so leaving lots of lights on can actually help them.  Councils that have dimmed or turned off street lights have sometimes recorded falls in levels of crime for example.

So how do we find out how much of that ~45TWh of lighting energy is being burnt pointlessly?  That's not easy to answer, especially in our increasingly 24 hour world where some shops and offices never close.  I've had a good old trawl through the Interwebs with Mr Google, and there's a distinct lack of hard data we can use to determine the answer to this question.

One paper I did come across had an interesting graph for a real London office that showed that the base load (ie the power used all the time, irrespective of whether people were using the building or not) was about 60% of the peak load when the workers were in. I've seen similar base load charts from the University's Sustainability team's energy monitoring of campus buildings.

Now this base load power use wasn't just lighting but also other electricity usage such as leaving IT equipment on and air conditioning running 24/7.  Even so, it shows that there's a lot of overnight energy being used in typical offices and we already know from above that office lighting is one of the highest electricity users overall.  If the 60% of the peak lighting is begin left on overnight across the country and not being used between (say) 10pm and 6am in most buildings, then we can guesstimate the wasted power.

Lets call the amount of base load lighting power used each hour p.  Then we'll use 8p at night and 16p of base load during the day.  To keep things simple lets assume that everyone comes in at 6am and turns on all the extra peak stuff at once, which then stays on until 10pm (it doesn't - this over estimates peak loading somewhat so will make our base load figures a bit low.  But heck, this is very rough guesstimate territory now!).  This means we'll use an extra 16 hours of the 40% peak power, which is 16 times 4p/6.  Lets assume this happens every day of the year, and use this to work out out a value for p from our known total lighting demand:

45 = 365*(8p + 16p + (16 * 4 / 6)p)

p = 0.003556375TWh = 3.556375GWh

So this guesstimate tells us that every hour we've got a base load lighting usage nationwide in service sector buildings of about 3.6GWh.  Doing this 8 hours a day, 365 days a year would mean a consumption of around 10.3TWh each year.  That's a big number - about a quarter of total lighting energy use!

So how do we get wasted energy use down? Unfortunately lighting isn't high on the list of priorities for some companies, despite them ending up spending hundreds, thousands or even millions of pounds on the energy it consumes.  Their accountants look at the capital costs of changing lighting systems and if the pay back period is more than a couple of years, it gets passed over. Heck, some retailers even have a problem with closing the doors in the Winter!

Another problem is that many service sector companies are tenants, and often energy use is lumped into a standard service charge.  The building managers.owners have no impetus to reduce energy use as the service charge covers their expenditure, whilst the tenants may be unaware of what fraction of the ever increasing service charge is due to energy use and what is due to other constantly increasing costs such water supply, sewerage or insurance.  This is not only an issue for how we encourage businesses to become more energy efficient, but also whether we can persuade them to invest in micro-generation technologies as well - tenants often can't and owners don't see the need to.

Of course as energy prices continue to rise, the pay back periods for installing smarter lighting systems and profits to be made from reducing or turning off extraneous lights will improve, so hopefully we'll have more companies taking notice of the lights the have on in the middle of the night.  And we can carry on nagging organisations that we work for or shop at to cut down on the obvious energy wastes such as pointless lighting.  After all we all paying for it somehow.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Powering Down Loughborough: Energy Descent Plan Part 1

One of the things that many Transition Town groups across the planet have done is start to draw up "energy descent" plans. These are documents that look at how much energy a town is using, what potential it has to generate cleaner energy itself and then it gives some more concrete targets for energy reduction programmes (insulation, unnecessary energy use, etc).

I've been thinking a bit about how we'd tackle that in Loughborough on and off over the last year or so, and I brain dumped what I'd come up with on the Transition Loughborough mailing list last summer, to little discussion. I've been thinking more about this again recently, especially with the recent panic in the UK about fuel strikes and several nuclear power station plans being dropped by the commercial groups that were developing them. I thought it was about time I revisited this and cast the net for comments a bit wider than the somewhat closed Transition Loughborough Google Group. This post is thus an updated version of the posting I made last summer with a few revisions and updates thrown in.

To get the ball rolling, I thought I'd just look at electricity use to start with. Of course there's also oil used in transport, gas used for cooking/heating and the use of fossil fuel derived non-fuel products (plastics, fertilizers, etc), but I had to start somewhere and electricity seemed tractable for finding numbers, making some estimates, etc.

First off I wanted to "guestimate" what the current electricity usage in Loughborough is. Unfortunately there's not a big kWh meter attached to the pylons that stride over Loughborough Moor, so I had to do a bit of research and number crunching. Here's some figures I've nabbed from various sources:

  • Loughborough population - 57,600 people (source: Wikipedia/Charnwood BC),
  • Average UK per capita electricity consumption: 6106kWh (source: World Bank via Google's Public Data Explorer. This covers both domestic use and each person's share of commercial/industrial electricity usage). 
Sticking to our combined domestic/commercial/industrial figures means that we can guesstimate that Loughborough has an annual electrical energy usage of:

57600 x 6106 = 351705600kWh = 351705.6MWh = 351.7056GWh

If we divide this by the number of hours in a year, we'll get the average power:

351705600 / (365 x 24) = 40149.04109589kW

Lets call that 40MW to be nice and round, especially as the population and per capita electricity usage figures come from different years. This is the average requirement - peaks in demand will be higher. Conveniently, the National Grid total typical consumption is 40GW across the whole country, with peaks up to 60GW, so we could expect that Loughborough might need to have generating capacity up to 60MW on hand if the ratio is similar to the nation as a whole.

What I was wondering was what renewable energy sources we could deploy in and around the town to meet this demand. If we could do more than required then groovy, we're looking good for a local energy generation plan. If we can't meet this demand we'll need to look at what can be shaved off and/or rely on "external" power generation from the National Grid (off shore wind, hydro, nuclear, etc. If we're aiming for a low carbon/post-Peak Oil target we'll want to reduce/remove the demand for fossil fuel based generation as well obviously, so we'd rather not have oil/coal/gas fired stations in the mix).

My first thought was Wind Power. The BWEA/DTi wind speed trackers say that Loughborough gets just under 6m/s average winds at 45m above ground level in a variety of locations around the town. Not a great wind speed, so possibly marginal for deployment of large scale turbines. Brush Electrical did plan to build one behind their plant in Loughborough a few years ago to demonstrate some of their generators but I don't think anything came of it. The University has a small (kW scale) wind turbine that's used for research purposes and there's one or two medium sized turbines on farms around the town. So wind probably isn't our first choice for electricity generation, although if push comes to shove we might be able to squeeze a few turbines in... lets say six of those big 1MW turbines on Loughborough moors to the east of the town and on the high ground about the M1 to the south west of the town. So 6MW at most of wind as a very rough estimate. Good old Wikipedia tells us that:

1 MW turbine with a capacity factor of 35% will not produce 8,760 MWh in a year (1 × 24 × 365), but only 1 × 0.35 × 24 × 365 = 3,066 MWh, averaging to 0.35 MW.

So our six 1MW large turbines will produce 18396MWh = 18.396GWh per year

OK, what about solar PV? To work out what capacity we could have if everyone suddenly got keen on solar panels (and could afford them) I took a two pronged approach: considering first the domestic roof space available, and then the industrial roof space. I didn't want to look at ground based "solar farm" set ups as I didn't want to "waste" potential food or biomass producing land under solar panels.

For domestic roof space, I got an estimate of the number houses and flats in Loughborough from of 21,108. Now I'm not going to sit looking at Google maps to work out which of these 21,108 properties could have solar panels and how big the arrays can be. Instead I'm going to estimate that a quarter of them will be facing south east to south west and of those about half again would be suitable for PV panels (not in conservation areas, enough roof space, roof capable of taking the loading, etc):

21108 x 0.25 x 0.5 = 2638.5 suitable properties.

Now domestic PV installations seem to range in size from less that 1KWp to over 5KWp, but most seem to average out at around 2.5KWp so I'm going to use that as a ball park figure. This means that I reckon if we had enough PV panels and willing folk to stump up the cash, we could get:

2638.5 x 2.5 = 6596.25 KWp of solar PV.

Call it 6.500MWp in round numbers.

For industrial roof space I took a slightly different tack: on Google maps satellite view I measured one of the University's large buildings to be roughly 50m x 100m. A square metre of solar PV can generate about 150Wp, so a 50m x 100m roof covered in PV panels should be able to generate up to:

50 x 100 x 150 = 750000Wp = 750KWp

Lets half that to account for parts of sloping roofs that face north, have existing services on them, skylights, etc to give us 375KWp per large roof. Then I took at look on Google maps and did a rough "finger in the air" guesstimate at how many other large industrial buildings looked to be roughly the same size (or multiples thereof in some cases). I reckoned there was about 40 such buildings in Loughborough, so large industrial buildings should give us:

40 x 375 = 15000KWp = 15MWp

Combining the domestic and commercial solar PV we get 21.5MWp. Note that this is MW _peak_: this is the maximum power output that you'd get under tip top sunshine. We'll get a lot less than that on average in the UK - English Heritage reckon that a 2KWp array on a house will generate about 1.5MWh over an average UK year. That means that our combined 21.5MWp of solar would generate:

21.5 x 1500 x (1000 / 2) = 16125000KWh = 16125MWh = 16.125GWh per year

There are other renewable options available but their contribution is likely to end up being a couple of megawatts at most. I'm thinking anaerobic digestion plants running small combined heat and power plants. Farmers already have these, but they already use the energy themselves. We'd be looking at additional biomass, such as power from the sewerage plant. Even if we took all the poop from the 57600 inhabitants of the town and assume that it had 50% of around 2500KCal (10 MJ or 0.0029075KWh) dietary intake left after digestion and we could turn 20% of that remaining energy into electricity, we'd end up with:

57600 x 0.0029075 x 0.5 x 0.2 = 16.7472KWh per day
= 6112.728KWh per year

Combining the total solar PV output with our wind and AD output gives:

18.396GWh + 16.125GWh + 0.006112GWh = 34.527GWh

Lets be generous again and call it 35GWh per year. So solar PV, wind and AD of human poop combined are only going to handle about a tenth of the 351.7056GWh demand we currently have. And that's before we take into account folk who want to move from use of liquid fossil fuels in transport to electric traction. Even if my rough estimates are half of what they should be (ie I've over looked a load of usable roof space or we could get lots more wind working around the area than I assumed), we've still got a big gap to make up.

To me this is saying that we need to both massively reduce our per capita demand, and still have access to large scale centralised power sources on the Grid (large off shore wind farms, nuclear stations, etc) in addition to the decentralised renewables generation. Reduction in demand is going to be mean turning devices off, using lower power equipment, no longer illuminating the outsides of buildings to try to make them look pretty, not lighting empty fourth floor office spaces at 1am, turning off some street lights, etc. Of course if EVs or hydrogen power for transport start to take off, the demand for electricity will start rising rapidly, wiping out lots of these potential savings and still leaving us with an energy gap.