Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Why does Britain flood more readily than the Netherlands ?

In the news at the moment it seems a surprisingly large part of the UK is flooded. I've read of flooding around the Thames stretching all the way to Oxford, in Lincolnshire, the East Anglian Fens, in Cambridge near where we used to live and most of all in the Somerset levels.

My family name, Hembrow, originates in Somerset. I lived there myself for many years of my life. It makes me especially sad to see that the Somerset levels have been flooded for six weeks already and that this has caused so much stress to so many people living in that area.

Before we moved from Cambridge to Assen, a number of people warned us not to on the grounds that we'd be flooded "because the Netherlands is below sea-level". This wan't a concern to us at all. We had done our homework. What's more, because we were moving to Assen we were actually moving to somewhere which was at about the same altitude above sea level as Cambridge.

Have we had floods in the Netherlands ?
Here in the Netherlands, we get much the same weather as Britain. As such, we have had similar heavy rain and windy conditions in the last few weeks. However while we have seen reports of flooding somewhere in the UK every year since we left, there's been no flooding here at all in the last six years.

While we lived comfortably above sea-level, the people who warned us about being "below sea-level" were right in one respect. A large part of the population of the Netherlands really does live on land which is below sea-level.

The Dutch polders are a far larger area of reclaimed land than anything that exists in the UK. Much of it is significantly below sea level. The world's largest artificial island is Flevoland, also the newest province of the Netherlands. Flevoland is huge. It's considerably larger than Berkshire or Bedfordshire,  nearly four times as large as the Isle of Wight. Almost this entire area is below sea level. If you fly into Lelystad airport then you land at an altitude of "-13 feet". People live in Flevoland, and indeed other low lying parts of the Netherlands, as much as 5 metres below sea level. With good water management, flooding is extremely rare.

How to react to a crisis.
In 1595, a man called Cornelius Vermuyden was born in a small village in the South of the Netherlands. Cornelius Vermuyden grew up become a land reclamation engineer and when he moved to the UK, he took his expertise with him. Mr Vermuyden was involved in draining Lincolnshirethe Fens of East Anglia and the Levels of Somerset.

Britain has of course done more work on flood defences since the 17th century, but you won't be surprised to hear that it has been on a much smaller scale than in the Netherlands. Frankly, what the UK has done has not been nearly adequate. You can tell this because the UK still floods.

Britain's current problems are due to not being able to cope with rainfall. However, the biggest flood disaster of recent history was due to a high tide and storm at sea which caused the North Sea Flood of 1953. This led to extensive flooding which affected both the East of England and the South-West of the Netherlands. While there is little to gain immediately from finger pointing in the UK right now, I think it's instructive to look at how two different nations responded to a previous disaster and consider how the UK should now respond to the problems which it faces.

Infrastructure. Infrastructure. Infrastructure.
Just as with cycling, the difference between the UK and the Netherlands can be seen as a difference in Infrastructure. Both the Netherlands and the UK were affected by the devastating 1953 floods and both countries reacted. How well have these two countries protected themselves against similar future flooding events ?

Britain after 1953
In response to the 1953 floods, the UK shored up much of the existing sea wall and built two large flood defences. The first was the Hull Tidal Barrier. This structure, spanning 30 m, is claimed to have "saved 19000 homes" in December. This barrier has closed about 12 times a year since it opened in 1980.

The largest sea defence in the UK is the Thames Barrier. This took ten years to build and was officially opened in 1984 to protect London. The total cost was £534 million. The Thames Barrier divides the river into two 30 m wide and four 61 m wide navigable spans. It is designed to withstand a 1 in 1000 year storm but it will be less effective after 2030 due to sea level rise.  It was originally planned to be replaced in 2030 but the working life has since been extended to 2060-2070. The decision not to begin work to replace the barrier has been controversial. In 2005, a proposal was made for a much longer defence further down the river. In 2013, a former member of the Thames Barrier Project Management Team wrote an open letter calling for a new barrier to be looked into immediately. The Environment Agency responded by saying that it "does not plan to replace the Thames Barrier before 2070". Here is the Thames Barrier:


The Thames Barrier. View Larger Map

The Netherlands after 1953
One of the largest moving objects on earth is the Maeslantkering. This sea defence protects Rotterdam from flooding. It cost €450 million to build. It was not possible to build something like the Thames Barrier in this location because the ships which visit the Port of Rotterdam. The Port of Rotterdam is huge. It's the largest port in Europe and one of the largest in the world and it has to accommodate the world's largest ships. This do not fit through the small openings in the Thames Barrier and therefore the Maeslantkering was designed as two parts which could float together in time of storms but which would normally be opened 360 m. It's entirely computer controlled and automatic and this barrier was designed to withstand a 1 in 10000 year event. Here it is to the same scale as the Thames Barrier:


The Maeslantkering to the same scale as the Thames Barrier in the image above View Larger Map

While the Maeslantkering could be seen as being on a overall similar scale to the Thames Barrier, this is not nearly the whole story. This is just one small link in a chain.

In the aftermath of the 1953 floods, the Netherlands began something far more impressive than building barriers on this scale. The Maeslantkering is just one part of the last section of the Delta-Works, an extensive sea defence network which protects the whole of the South-West of the Netherlands. Work on the Delta-Works began almost immediately after the devastating 1953 floods and continued until they were declared finished in 1997. However, in reality, works continue now to ensure that the defences are proof against sea-level rise.

The Oosterscheldekering operates in a manner which is similar to that of the Hull or Thames Barriers. Like the Thames Barrier, this took ten years to build, but it's but it is on a far greater scale. While the Thames Barrier spans a 520 m wide part of the Thames, the Oosterscheldekering is about 15 times that long and is designed to last more than 200 years. At the centre of the barrier, an artificial island several kilometres long, Neeltje Jans, forms part of the structure. On the island you can find such things as a visitors centre with information about the entire Delta-Works and a water park with activities for children. The picture below shows the Oosterscheldekering with a superimposed picture of the Thames Barrier to the same scale:


And this is what you see if you drive or cycle over the Oosterscheldekering. Yes, of course as well as a road there is a safe cycle route, in this case combined with a service road. All through motor traffic travels on the right side of this picture, on lane in each direction on either side of the green line, so conditions are just fine for this family with children:

The Oosterscheldekering is an enormous piece of infrastructure. View Larger Map

From wikipedia. See license for this image
Even the Oosterscheldekering is actually only a part of the total Delta-Works:

To protect the North of the Netherlands there is another set of sea defences. The Zuiderzee Works. This again was built on an enormous scale, including the world's longest dyke. Also see the Lauwerzee works.

Why is the Netherlands dry ?
The Netherlands keeps both the countryside and the towns dry. Dutch people are not told by their politicians that there is a choice of town or country because it would be devastating for the country to lose either.

A new law was created which commits the government to protecting the country from floods. While the pictures above all relate to flooding from the sea, note that the law applies equally to flooding due to rivers. The Netherlands has suffered this type of flooding in the past, but remedial measures taken against those are far in advance of what I've seen in the UK.

The Netherlands doesn't flood because rather than making excuses as happens in the UK, the infrastructure has been built to protect this country.
On holiday last year, Judy and I cycled for nearly 100 km kilometres next to this dyke, which protects farmland and small villages from the sea. Flood defences here are on a huge scale, ringing the coastline and around all rivers. The Netherlands doesn't flood because the Dutch decided not to let it flood.
Conclusion
For many years we've been trying to encourage the UK to build infrastructure which is suitable to encourage the entire population to cycle. Again and again, cyclists are fobbed off with words which don't result in real change. Even aspirations for change remain extremely low. Britain makes a lot of noise, sends press releases around the world to try to pretend huge progress has been made, but this noise is completely out of proportion with what has been achieved.

I see almost exact parallels with flood defences. The Thames Barrier is not actually nearly enough even to protect London and it does nothing for people who don't live near the Thames. What's more, it's on a microscopic scale when compared with Dutch flood defences. However, Britain has been making a lot of noise again. Search for "Thames Barrier" on Google and you get 1.3 M hits. "Maeslantkering" -  just 66 K.

Britain: On the subjects both of cycling and of flood prevention, you need to stop pretending that marketing will fix the problems, stop shouting loudly about small "successes" and start watching how the Dutch build infrastructure !

Update
200 m from our home, is this drainage ditch next to a
 cycle-path next to a canal with house-boats. This cycle
path
, like thousands of km of roads and cycle-paths across
the Netherlands, belongs to the water board. It doubles
as an access road for maintenance vehicles. The drainage
ditch is dredged several times every year.
The Netherlands has many thousands of kilometres of dyke and canal, much of which is used to some extent to fight against flooding and all of which is immaculately maintained. Water Boards are very important in the Netherlands. Everyones' safety depends on good water management. We vote for the water board in the local elections.

The drainage ditches here are dredged twice a year which helps to make sure they work properly. Dredging has become a major topic in Somerset because abandonment of maintenance has quite possible contributed to the flooding, however the problems with Britain go a lot further than this. It's a systematic failure to have built the required infrastructure over decades which has made that country so vulnerable, not just that the dredgers haven't been used recently. That this basic maintenance has not been done is a symptom, not the disease.

A few more links to Wikipedia may be of interest. Here's a list of all the sea-floods that have occurred in the  Netherlands. A general article about Flood Control in the Netherlands is very interesting. Note that because the Netherlands is the route to the sea for some of Europe's large rivers (e.g. the Rhine), this country has to deal with water which runs downhill from other countries, such as Germany. The Room for the River project is addressing conditions around some of these rivers in some cases allocating areas of controlled flood plain which will be allowed to flood. This has been misinterpreted by some British commentators as a wholesale retreat from flood defences when actually it's nothing of the sort. I also recommend that you read about river flooding and its prevention in the Netherlands.

We now also know that in 2012, the present British government cut the budget for flood defences for the very areas in Britain which are now flooded.

Two weeks later
The flooding continues in Somerset. My mother sent me a copy of the local paper which is dominated by the continuing flooding problem.

There are stories about fund raising for those who've lost their homes, estimates of how long until people will be able to return, how business are struggling to cope, how pumps brought in from a few km west of where we live in the Netherlands are now helping to move water a few km away from where my mother lives in Somerset.

The newspaper also includes a letter to the editor from my mother pointing out that my father used to talk about how the flood defences were not maintained adequately. Sadly, he passed away five years ago so it's some time since he made those comments. This is not a new problem, it's the result of decades of underinvestment in the infrastructure required to keep Somerset safe from flooding.

The reaction to this blog post
It has been surprise to me at all that many of the reactions to this blog post have been claims of exceptionalism such as that "Britain's coastline is longer". Of course it is true that Britain's coastline is longer. The UK is an island. However, that means there is more work to do, not less.

Such responses are used to deflect criticism rather than responding directly to the argument. What I wrote above is a call for Britain to start taking action rather than making excuses.

No two countries are the same. No two countries have the same challenges so no two countries have exactly the same solutions either. However, there's a big difference between doing things and not doing things.

June 2014: The same drainage ditch as shown two photos
above being dredged for the second time this year. It is
constant maintenance of infrastructure built to a high
standard which prevents the Netherlands from flooding.
Exceptionalism works in both directions. If it were the Dutch making excuses for flooding while Britain remained dry, Dutch people could point out ways in which the UK is different to the Netherlands and which make the task of staying dry so much easier for Britain. e.g. a far smaller proportion of Britain is at or below sea level than is true of the Netherlands so Britain has to protect a smaller proportion of itself from the sea. Also, all of Britain's rivers start and end in the same country so the flow of water is entirely under British control, while the Netherlands has to deal with water which has run from the Alps and picked up volume all the way through Germany when there are heavy storms, so it is German flooding that affects the Netherlands. But these are both hypothetical responses to a situation which does not exist. It is Britain which floods and the Netherlands which remains dry. Why ? That was the entire point of this blog post.

The point remains the same. The Dutch do engineering and solve problems while Britain makes excuses and is affected by problems which could be resolved. This was not always the case. As I've pointed out elsewhere, Britain made remarkably fast progress on things like the motorway network in the 1950s, which were then considered to be important enough to attract investment.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Noise from wind turbines. A real problem or NIMBYism ?


Video from a field of 12 turbines which on average provide enough electricity to run about 3700 average homes. The sound is as recorded on the camera at the site. You'll note that we could converse quite normally even right next to a wind turbine.

We can't see any wind turbines from our home because even though there are no hills here to hide them, they're not visible when you're a distance from them. However there are quite a few turbines within range of cycling trips. I've cycled right up to them several times in the past but this time actually made recordings of the noise that their opponents say they produce. You have to listen quite carefully to hear them. It's quite a contrast with with conventional coal-fired power plants and hydro-electric power plants which I've visited in the past, both of which are deafening.

Objections seem to disappear when people have a stake in the turbines. Older two blade turbines like this are less aerodynamically efficient and spin faster (2 blade turbines have to rotate 1.5 times as often as 3 blades to catch the wind) which makes them "noisier" than the newer designs. They're still rather less noisy than milking machinery, though, and this farmer is one of many who has installed such a turbine just a few metres from home.
Yes it's possible to make a recording of the swoosh swoosh sound made by the turbines, but only by increasing the gain and making sure there are no background noises. Any background noise is enough to drown out the turbine noise, including the noise of the wind going through trees or in this case the crunching of gravel beneath my bicycle tyres and the calls of the sheep nearby.

People also live next to really large turbines without really large problems. By contrast, when we lived a few kilometres from a coal fired power station we had dust and often foul smelling air to deal with.
I like wind turbines. They're not a complete solution to our energy needs, but they're a useful part of what we need to do to generate energy in a renewable future. Here in the Netherlands we do not have hydroelectric sources (though we are sometimes sold it as if we do) and due to the flat landscape we have a lot of wind. For this country wind should perhaps appear at a higher point on the alternative energy matrix.

Our holiday route also took us past many traditional windmills. These are of course beautiful, but so are the  modern turbines. They're a symbol of modernity and hope for the future.
I believe that people will come to accept wind turbines once the NIMBYism has been overcome. They're beautiful objects and the worst possible failure mode is simply that one of them should fall apart or fall over. This is in great contrast to the ongoing disaster of global warming due to burning of fossil fuels

One of a series of ludicrous NIMBY "letters to the editor" printed in a pro-nuclear local newspaper in Somerset, UK. Hinkley Point nuclear power station has leaked in the past but not caused an outright disaster. Not yet. Nuclear power has always been claimed to be safe but ask the people of Fukushima perhaps no longer believe it.
Wind power is not efficient on a small scale. Small wind turbines simply don't work very well. It you must install a small scale wind-turbine, the best of them are the larger ones which resemble large scale designs, not the exotic shapes. For domestic installations, solar panels on the roof are a much better idea.

Another farm, another wind turbine. Sensibly, this turbine is installed on land, and the farmer no doubt enjoys watching the electricity meter spin backwards at a considerable speed. Off-shore wind-power is a ridiculous idea by comparison. Maintenance is made far more difficult, running cables to the land is difficult and the salty environment won't do much for the life-span of off-shore turbines.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Why I'm not attending Velo-city in Adelaide in 2014. Sorry, I'm not that sort of "environmentalist"

In the last few years I've received several invitations to attend events a long distance from where we live. In the past these included invitations to visit the USA and Brazil. In May I received an invitation to be a keynote speaker at next year's Velo-city conference. I am told that "the conference is expected to attract more than 800 delegates from Australasia, Europe, Asia Pacific and North America" and I'm absolutely certain that it will be interesting for the delegates. However it's impossible for me to square the enormous use of fossil fuels which would be required to transport me half way around the world and back again just to make a presentation lasting a few minutes.

I wrote the following reply to Stephen Yarwood, Lord Mayor of Adelaide, and Michelle Everitt, his Executive Assistant:
Dear Stephen / Michelle,

Thank you for your invitation to attend the Velo-city conference as a keynote speaker in May 2014. I'm very sorry that I've taken so long to get back to you about this, I'm really flattered by the invitation but the reply is difficult to write.

From all that you have written and all that I already know about Adelaide, it looks like a very pleasant place to visit. I am absolutely sure that if I was to visit I would enjoy my stay enormously. However, I am unfortunately not going to be able to come. Given your kindness in inviting me, I owe you an explanation of why:

I try to live my life according to my beliefs and with as little hypocrisy as possible. My cycling advocacy comes from a deeply held belief that cycling is at least a partial solution to many of the problems that human beings currently face. In one stroke, cycling helps to reverse obesity, give children/older people/those with disabilities more freedom, improve air quality in our towns, save lives due to enhancing health and reducing the shocking amount of violent death which occurs on our streets. Cycling also reduces dependency on foreign oil and therefore reduces the number of lives lost in conflict for that oil and, perhaps most important of all, it also reduces the carbon footprint of everyone who chooses to cycle instead of use a vehicle powered by fossil fuels (directly or indirectly) for their journeys.

This is where the problem arises. In order to attend Velo-city in Adelaide I would have to fly a round-trip distance of 32000 km. Making this trip would equate to several times my usual annual impact on the planet simply to make a presentation lasting a few minutes. I cannot possibly square this with my conscience and I must live within my own moral guidelines. I suggest that others don't fly long distances and while it would no doubt be very convenient to excuse my own excess by saying that it's for a higher purpose, I have to apply the same morality to myself as I would to others.

I wish you all the success in the world with improving the cycling modal share of your city and I hope you can learn from the best examples in the world. These are to be found in the Netherlands. There's no other country that comes close. If it would be helpful, I could perhaps record a video exclusively for you to show at the Velo-city conference in lieu of my own attendance in person.

Yours,

David Hembrow.
I have already had the discussion with one email correspondent about how my presentation could cause "100 people to do 1% less driving each" and that this "equals your journey's damage", but I don't buy that. Besides, there's not just one person going, but "more than 800 delegates". I won't be one of them.

It simply does no good for each of us to live beyond our, and our planet's, means. Gandhi once supposedly said that we "must be the change we want to see". Whether it was actually him who said it or not is irrelevant. It still makes sense. If we all live as hypocrites how can we expect to make the world into a better place to leave for our children ?

I urge all readers not to excuse themselves. If you believe that global warming is an issue, don't take unnecessarily long journeys either for leisure or for work. Yes, being offered international travel for free might seem like a lovely perk, but it's not something we should be doing, whoever pays the air-fare. If you believe that such a journey is necessary, consider why you believe that to be the case. The only practical way of reducing your personal energy consumption and your personal footprint on the planet due to travel is to travel less. Switching between modes (i.e. train rather than airliner) helps far less than reducing distances.

We all need to consume fewer resources and we all need to stop treating our own usage as something exceptional and excusable.

Rough comparison of energy consumption of modes of travel from "Instead of Cars" by Terence Bendixon. It's an old reference (1977) but not much has changed. Airliners are now somewhat more efficient than shown here, cars are a little more efficient, other modes much the same as before. The difference between travelling by train vs. aircraft comes down to a factor of about 3. Whatever you do, don't imagine that you do the world any good at all if you travel on a passenger ship instead of by air.
Update May 2014
Nearly a year has passed since I was invited to Velocity. The event is now underway and lots of people from around the world are in attendance. I did not go for the exact reasons explained above. The organisers did not take me up on the offer of sending them a video.

There's one reason why
an oil company wants
to be a "major supporter
of cycling" and that is
to greenwash its image
It was just pointed out to me on twitter that one of the sponsors is an oil company. So I looked at their website, and that's not all that that I found.

I find the whole thing incredibly sad. Many of the eight hundred delegates, including people with titles like "environmental consultant", have travelled half way across the world, consuming any amount of energy and producing any amount of pollution to do so, merely so that they can talk about the environmentally friendly form of transport called cycling. In many cases they're actually using this to make marketing claims (the usual suspects have been exaggerating). What's more, this is happening at an event which is not only in part sponsored by an oil company but is also has two airlines as "official partners" (so at least three companies are using velocity to give themselves a nice greenwashed image) but which also describes itself as "a sustainable event" seemingly based on taking such minute steps as feeding waste food to a wormery.

It's high time that people started to join the dots together and think about what they are doing, what they are part of, and what their responsibilities ought to be.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

"On your side" ? Nationwide Building Society directors buying our votes with our money

What's wrong with this picture ?
A Building Society is defined as "a financial institution owned by its members as a mutual organization". Building societies originated as a means by which poor working people could club together and provide funds to build housing for their members, however these days they are run very much like banks and provide the same services as do banks. I still have a small amount of money in the Nationwide Building Society in the UK and as a result I am one of the owners of the Nationwide Building Society. I have as much right as other members to vote in their AGM and I was recently sent an invitation to do so. Here is the voting form:
What's wrong with this voting form ?
You may notice that there aren't exactly a lot of options to vote for. The Board recommends that members vote for those things that The Board wants to do. They make it easy to do so by providing a single box to put a cross into and tell us that this is "in your best interests as a member of the Society". Anyone who ticks this box, also offered as the first choice to anyone who votes online, has rubber-stamped whatever it is that the board have decided to do on our behalf.

The other option is to go through each of the items individually. All that the options provided allow a voter to do is to choose "for", "against" or "abstain" next to each of the suggestions of The Board. Ther are no options to vote for or against anything which has come from a source other than The Board. This is not a real democratic process because no alternative is provided. The only thing that anyone can do to express displeasure is to go to the effort of voting against each of these proposals individually, and you have to tick every single "against" box because otherwise "If you do not do this for a particular item, the Chairman or your representative can vote on it as he or she sees fit." i.e. unless you make sure you put a cross in all the "against" boxes then you will still be held as having voted "for" what the board has already decided to do. This is analogous to voting forms in communist countries where "Communist election committees typically counted as "aye" all the ballots unless both the first and last name of their unopposed candidate were crossed off completely. A casual scratch across a name or the whole list was not considered a vote against."

Communism ? Capitalism ? For the average guy, what's the difference ?

What's wrong with what we're voting for ?
So what is it exactly that we're being asked to vote for ? Primarily the pay-rises of the directors. The most up to date official figures show the average salary in the UK to be £26,500 per year, with a rise over the year of 1.2% for men and 2.0% for women. How do Nationwide executive directors compare with this ? All of their salaries were already well in advance of a million pounds per year, and their average rise is 16.2%. One of them is taking a 77.2% rise in his salary. These people are well into the stratosphere in comparison with the normal working people who's money they are entrusted with.

Non executive directors are "paid a basic fee, with an additional supplement paid for serving on or chairing a Board Committee". So how do they fair ? The Chairman - i.e. he who will vote for you should you decide not to vote yourself - does not get a pay rise this year, but he does still expect to receive 300,000 for his services. The smallest amount paid is 27,000, but this is to someone who retired in April, so it is not a full year's pay. Many of the non executive directors can expect to receive six figure sums for part time work.

 "On your side". I'd smile
too on £2M per year
How does the board of a building society, which was started on mutual ideas and which supposedly exists to benefit its members, convince those members to vote for every increasing salaries for the board ? That's where marketing comes in...

A leaflet enclosed with the voting form including the "Voting guide and Notice of AGM 2013" is entitled "Your building society - On your side" . Here are some images from that leaflet:

"On your side" and "Helping to get you moving". i.e. they've "helped" people to take debt to buy a home. Note also the "caring" cycle helmet.

They're also "Living on your side" and have agreed to give a million pounds over four years to Shelter. Sounds good, but it's actually only about 1/30th of what the five top earners will pay themselves over the same period, and note that this money like that of the directors' salaries comes from you. The directors are using your money to buy your vote from you by appearing to do something charitable.

Another distraction is that 20 p per vote is donated to Macmillan Cancer Support. Again it's a worthwhile organisation, but this is another example of how the directors are using your money to buy your vote, and it costs less than you think. 6.4 million pounds over 20 years works out as only about £300K per year. i.e. it's equivalent to about two months pay for the top five directors of Nationwide.
Win your own money back !
If you're not convinced to vote for the directors by their (greenwash like) "generous" offer to distribute some of your money to charities, perhaps you'll be impressed by the back page offer of a prize draw which can only be entered by voting. Someone stands to win £5000 while five others will receive £1000 as runner up prizes.

Not bad, eh ? But remember that such trifling amounts of money only sound like much if you don't have much. These prize draw sums are significant only to "the little people". For the top earner, Mr Beale, even the top prize is less than one day's salary. For him, it would hardly be worth the effort of bothering to go and collect such a sum. What's more, this is again your money that they're offering to buy your support. While normal members of the society each have a small chance to win £5000, the top five directors pay-rises for 2013 together add up to be worth 200 times this amount. The real prize on offer here is you give them your votes so that they can carry on as they have always carried on.

Why pick on Nationwide ? I actually doubt that any of the other building societies are much different. However, I'm a member of Nationwide so I was sent their literature. They're also the largest BS in the UK so could lead by providing a better example than average.

Lots of people work hard in this world, but few of us are in the position of being able to vote ourselves ever higher salaries. For my part, I've been struggling to reach minimum wage for years despite working very long hours at a number of different initiatives

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Amoy Wok Veggies

Sometimes people send us stuff for review. However, in general I don't do reviews. In particular I don't tend to do negative reviews, on the "Bambi principle" that if you can't find anything nice to say it's better to say nothing at all. However, every so often there is a product from a company large enough to know better which really deserves a slating, and this is one of them. Let me present Amoy Wok Veggies

Just horrible...
We cook from from fresh ingredients very nearly every night. There's not all that much choice if you're vegan - ready meals pretty much don't exist, and restaurants aren't too reliable either. Normally I'd choose to buy fresh vegetables, mainly from this country and certainly with a preference for those which have not been flown thousands of kilometres.

However, yesterday I came across something I'd normally not consider. Amoy's Wok Veggies claimed to be "crispy" and they would certainly be easy to prepare. What's more, they'd been discounted heavily making them actually less expensive than fresh veg. Just for a change, I thought I'd try them.

On opening the packet I found that everything within was limp, chewy and absolutely tasteless. It was impossible to tell whether I put a piece of mushroom, carrot or the unknown green vegetable in my mouth. All tasted the same... of nothing. I've never known anything so tasteless as this in my life. Anyway, despite my initial reservations I persevered and stir fred these veg with a little onion, garlic and quality soy sauce. I should not have bothered. This was simply wasting good ingredients on the bad. The result was a chewy mess which tasted of nothing more than the good ingredients I'd added. The majority of the meal cooked with these vegetables ended up in the dog's bowl. Luckily I'd also cooked some fresh vegetables which were tasty as expected.

The dog's bowl. Sorry, Harry, you deserve better.
I'm left with a bit of a mystery. Amoy's instructions suggest that these vegetables be used with meat, one of their strong sauces, and their noodles. However, what's the point ? I don't see that adding these vegetables to any meal would improve it. Amoy's noodles are simply noodles. Their sauces might have a strong flavour but that won't cover up that there is nothing left in these "wok veggies" to enhance, and nor will it turn limp chewy vegetables into "crispy vegetables".

How did they make these things _so_ tasteless ? Peas from a jar are a vast improvement.

Just don't buy these things. Any fresh vegetable cut up into small pieces will taste better than this. Any fresh mushroom will taste better than what is left of the premium mushrooms in these packets. These packets are normally sold at a premium price, but they are absolutely not worth it.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

One whole year of solar power, and what is "green" power anyway ?

Our photovoltaic solar panels were installed on our roof just over a year ago, in April 2012. As they've been installed for a whole year now, we can see how effective they've been not only in Summer but also in Winter.

Having kept note of production from the solar panels also meter readings for the last year, it's possible to draw a graph. The graph takes into account 12 months, I've added the first six days of April 2013 to the April 2012 figure in order to show that as a complete month:
Note that apparent downward trends in consumption for May/June and July/August/September in 2012 were due to our reading the meter inconsistently in those months so we don't have exact figures. However, total area of the red "actual use" is correct.
The blue bars show solar energy production each month. Red bars show our consumption. It's quite pleasing to see the blue bars drawing a good approximation of a sine wave, as they were expected to do over a year. It's also interesting to note that our electricity has some similarity to a cosine curve. While we don't use electricity for heating, we use electric lights a lot more in winter than in summer, and perhaps we also bake more in winter.

Successful experiment !
I'm pleased with the result of our first year of solar power. The electricity that we generated from April 2012 to April 2013 totalled 3286 kWh with a value of about €680. The shortfall was 133 kWh, which has a value of about €27. So long as the system remains so effective our electricity bills will remain minute.

The predicted output of our panels in our location was about 3150 kWh, so in the first year we've generated about 5% more than the supplier said we would. No cause for complaint there, especially given that last summer was one of the wettest on record.

The system cost €8000. It will take just under 12 years for the system to pay for itself if electricity does not go up in price within that period. I predict that it will and therefore I expect the system to pay for itself sooner. Time will tell. In any case, we are effectively immunized from the effect of any electricity price rises.

The panels are guaranteed to have over 90% of their rated output in 10 years time and over 80% after 25 years.

Peaks and troughs
Our peak month was May when we produced 447 kWh. June had the best ratio of production vs. consumption, 392 kWh vs. 223 kWh (consumption was 175% of consumption). You'll note that the lacklustre summer of 2012 caused June and July to have lower output than May.

Even when completely covered in frost there is still some
output - 600 W when this photo was taken.
The worst month was December. In this month we produced just 35.2 kWh but consumed 328 kWh. Our production was just 11% of the consumption. January was also low, but note that production held up quite well in other winter months, in November we produced a third of the electricity we consumed and in February over 40%.

From April when the panels were installed through to January, we had a positive balance in the amount of electricity generated vs. consumption. In February the balance went negative.

What happens at night ?
It costs us roughly €240 per year to be connected to the grid. This gives security of supply and of course for us the grid operates as a "battery".

There is no practical way of storing large amounts of electricity. People often imagine it's as simple as having a car battery in some corner of your home, but actually it requires a huge battery to store enough energy to run an average western home at night time. What's more, as you can see from the sine-wave of production vs. cosine wave of consumption, we don't have just a 24 hour cycle over which our consumption has to be matched to production but a 365 day cycle. To store enough electricity in Summertime to power the homes of people with average Western lifestyles through Winter is in fact impossible. The earth does not have enough resources to built a battery capable of doing this.

Oxxio fuel mix figures for small
business clients (we are on this tariff)
And what is that "battery" in reality ?
My electricity provider, Oxxio, state that the electricity I buy from them is entirely "green". They say that the energy comes almost entirely from water power, but of course there are no hydroelectric power stations in the Netherlands, so what does this mean ?

Oxxio, like other suppliers, buy "green" Guarantee of Origin certificates from Norway. Norway and the Netherlands are linked by a 700 MW cable, enough to balance the grids a little but only to carry but a fraction of either country's use. The Netherlands as a whole uses a lot more than 700 MW of electricity. Oxxio have 800000 customers. If each of their customers consumes electricity at the same average rate as we do (and we're a little below average) then total consumption of Oxxio customers is about the same as half of the capacity of the link between here and Norway. Oxxio are but the fourth largest electricity supplier in the Netherlands. One of their competitors, Essent, has over 2.3 million customers and many of their customers are signed up to "green" electricity as well.

The figures don't add up and when you look at it, it's obvious why. While companies in the Netherlands and elsewhere are buying Green Certificates which say that the electricity they sell is "green", nothing requires that the electricity they sell genuinely comes from a "green" source as these certificates are "traded separately from the energy produced".

I'm pretty sure that Norwegian consumers assume all their electricity is "green" because virtually all (98%) of their electricity generation is from hydro electric plants. As a result, the "green" electricity is in effect being sold twice. Electricity sold to Norwegians, whether they realise it or not, is now certified as being over 75% non green even though they are being sold electricity which overwhelmingly comes from that country's hydro electric power stations. The reason is that Norway is selling their Green Certificates. The result is that Norwegians, perhaps unwittingly, buy their hydro-electric power as "not green" at a lower price while those of us in countries like the Netherlands who buy "green" electricity are actually been sold electricity which comes almost entirely not from renewable sources but with an additional charge to cover the Green Certificates.

And so in reality when we switch on our lights at night time or in winter, our electricity comes almost entirely from non-renewable sources. That we produce and export genuinely green electricity much of the rest of the time doesn't help at night because there is no way to store "our" electricity and return it to us. Similarly, it doesn't help much that we're signed up to a green energy supplier because they have no way of guaranteeing that our electricity genuinely comes from a green source.

I still think it's a good thing to have the panels on our roof, and I still think it's got to help a little to buy from a green supplier. However, this isn't quite the green energy revolution that I'd hoped for. If you know of a solution, please let me know.

One solution, the most important of all, is to consume less. That was the immediate response from a friend of mine. We are working on that too !

Friday, 5 April 2013

Why I am no longer on Facebook

Between 2007 and yesterday I had an account on Facebook.

I originally joined the site because I thought it would be useful for keeping in touch with family members and ex-colleagues, and to some extent it was useful for this.

Later, I set up an account for our business with the hope that this would be a useful way of keeping in touch with customers.

However, over time Facebook became something that I really did not like. Perhaps it's my own fault that my "friends" grew beyond those people who I'd actually met, but that's the nature of the thing and it's certainly not all negative. I met plenty of pleasant and perfectly rational people online on Facebook who I would never have met in real life and of course I don't regret that at all. However, as the number of "friends" grew and the number of "friends" of "friends" who could see my posts and comment on them grew, it became clear that what was posted on Facebook was no longer for my actual friends and family at all.

The big problem with the site is the signal to noise ratio. For every person posting items genuinely of interest and including some original thought there are a thousand others re-posting "amusing" pictures of cats, taking photos of their dinner, links to pointless games, automated updates from some self-important piece of software or other or offering an unwelcome glimpse into their sex-life, not to mention the unthinking knee-jerk "judge and jury" reactions to stories in the news. While I'm interested in reading sensibly written pieces by people who have actually thought about what's going on in the world, I have no interest at all in any of this other stuff. Too much time is taken up sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Facebook also has a quality problem. Their software changes too often and their quality control is poor. There are now a bewildering array of configuration options which make it difficult for people to tell who they are sending their messages to (hence receiving things which clearly were not meant for a wide audience), every single irritating app must be blocked individually and while the Android app is better now than it used to be, that also has enough bugs and user interface funnies that it adds another layer of tediousness to the user experience.

A fake conversation generated by Facebook between myself and my alter-ego.
They wanted me to pay to generate more meaningless noise on their website.
The final straw came yesterday when Facebook attempted to sell me a pointless service for replying to emails. They illustrated their offer with a made up conversation between myself and my alter-ego in which no real information was transmitted either one way or the other.

This is almost a perfect example of what is actually wrong with Facebook. There is no information in that "conversation", just noise which wastes time. I don't want to automatically reply to my customers with such banalities as this. If they've asked a sensible question (i.e. not a spammy "thanks for sharing...") then they deserve a sensible answer. They can get that through the email contact on our company website. We give further support on the company blog, where it remains readable rather than disappearing under a future wave of noise.

It's not just Facebook
As for Twitter. I still have an account there, but I post infrequently. Twitter is in many ways even worse than Facebook. 140 characters is enough for a knee-jerk response to anything, but is rarely enough to make a reasoned argument. People use it largely to promote themselves and therefore they post the same things repeatedly in order to be noticed. I find its effect to be similar to that which would be achieved if everyone in the neighbourhood bought a loudhailer and used it to pontificate continuously about themselves from their roof-tops. A majority of tweets do not get read even once, and the problem of fake twitter followers seems to be growing.

And what about LinkedIn ? I have an account there too, but while it masquerades as a jobs site, I don't see that it is in fact much different to Facebook in the way that it works. People clearly accept invitations from others who they don't know (I receive enough such invitations) and endorsements of skills seem to flow freely from people who don't know how well the person they are endorsing can perform a particular task. I've received plenty of endorsements there from people I've not actually worked with. LinkedIn is a website which, just like Facebook, encourages people to accumulate lots of "friends" but doesn't actually lead to anyone knowing any more about anyone else.

And what about all that data collection ?
Many people also have fears about the amount of data collected by social media websites. I don't personally subscribe to conspiracy theories, but there is still something a little creepy about websites sometimes seeming to know too much about you, and more so when they use this simply to try to convince you to buy stuff.

Conclusion
Social media had some sort of promise, but it's not really achieved it. For now I'm bowing out.

I'm no luddite. In the mid 1980s I found myself in trouble at the Polytechnic which I attended because I'd written an email tool and was encouraging people to use it ("waste of computer resources", apparently). Twenty years ago I was trying to think of useful things to do with the world's first tablet computer with wireless link to the internet. I keep abreast of technology, but I'm not controlled by it.