Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Fujifilm XF-1 camera review. A manufacturing fault and a worthless guarantee. Extremely bad customer service is the reason why I will never buy a Fujifilm product again

Sadly, our FujiFilm camera suffered from a very common fault which is the result of bad design. There are literally hundreds of reports online of exactly the same problem occurring with FujiFilm cameras in all countries where the XF1 was sold. After our camera went wrong, we then discovered the other very common problem experienced by FujiFilm customers: The guarantee is worthless because FujiFilm does not honour the guarantee when their cameras fail, even when they fail from a well known and common fault.

It does looks great. But don't buy a Fujifilm camera - read on
On the 28th of August 2014 I bought my wife, Judy, a gift of a new camera. A Fujifilm XF1, which had been discounted in a local supermarket from a previous price of around €300 to €149. The XF1 not only looked attractive but it had a great specification and I was pleased to find it at a reasonable price. The impressive EXR CMOS sensor allows very wide dynamic range in photos by pairing pixels, ISO settings up to 12800 are possible, the camera can take HD video with stereo sound, and it has a full range of manual controls should you want to use them. The aluminium case promised a level of robustness that you'd perhaps expect from a plastic case camera. Reviewers described the camera as being a "stunning design" and having "excellent build quality".

Unfortunately, reviews are generally written immediately after products are released and cannot be relied upon to reflect the long term quality of a product. This review is different. I'm going to tell the truth about what happened to a camera which was used quite lightly and carefully for just seven months before it first went wrong.

Initial photos taken with the camera were great. This one dates from the September 2nd 2014. This was the first day that Judy really used her new camera. Unfortunately, such good performance didn't last long. Read on...

This camera took just seven months to fail due to a known production fault. Fujifilm refuse to fix it.

Our camera displaying the "Lens Control Error" message. Many people have found that their Fujifilm XF1 cameras fail with a "Lens Control Error", it's a very well documented problem with this model of camera. But Fujifilm blame the customer for the fault.
By the start of April 2015, just seven months after purchase, the camera had begun to behave strangely. At first we blamed ourselves, thought we'd set the camera into a strange mode. So we reset it to factory settings a couple of times, but the problem slowly became more obvious. The photos below are all as they came out of the camera and are representative of the quality of photograph which you can expect from a FujiFilm XF1 camera. The only processing of these photos was to scale to a web friendly size:
April 12 2015: Images were increasingly overexposed. This was the first sign of the problem. Already these photos are unusable.

April 30th 2015: Background is completely whited out. An interesting effect with these beans, but it's not accurate.

May 10th 2015: At this point the problem appeared to be related to zoom. Zoom past "35" and the result was a washed out photo like this, while otherwise the photos could still be quite good. After taking a photo which is overexposed like this one, the camera would always report a "Lens Control Error" and you'd have to shut it down and restart in order to take another photo.

May 10th 2015: The extreme colours of this photo are as they came from the camera. Even indoors and not zoomed in, the camera would sometimes do strange things with photographs such as produce these extreme colour shifts.

May 24th 2015: In less than eight months, the camera has become completely unusable. It rarely produces a photo which has any value at all. This is the result indoors in a relatively dark room on a cloudy day.
By the end of May 2015, the camera was completely unusable. The "Lens Control Error" message would appear on power-up most of the time, and if you were lucky enough ever to be able to take a photo before the error appeared, it would shut the camera down after a single photo had been taken. The results were in any case as shown above.

Returning the camera to FujiFilm

I contacted FujiFilm through their website on the 19th of May, describing how this problem had slowly become obvious. This is what I wrote on the FujiFilm website:
I live in the Netherlands. In August I bought a Fujifilm XF1 camera as a present for my wife. The serial number is 2DQ42707. This camera has now stopped working properly, just nine months after purchase.
The fault shows itself as a "lens control error" reported on the screen on the back of the camera. Photos which have been taken with the camera are now over-exposed to the point of being completely useless.
Searching on the internet I find that this is a common fault with the XF1.
How will fujifilm rectify this fault ?
Two days later I received a reply. It appeared that FujiFilm were taking this seriously. They offered to send a service to collect the camera from us and promised return of a working camera in 8-10 days:

You will note that there was no request from FujiFilm for us to enclose any documentation with the camera. At this stage it appeared that they recognised the problem as a production fault and intended to fix it.

However, that was not to be. On the 28th of May, already seven days after promising return of a working camera withing 8-10 days, I received email from FujiFilm which directed me to this web page:

This screen grab is from after the camera was returned to us, so redirects to the shipping company rather than allowing tracking within FujiFilm's own system. The next screen-shot down shows what FujiFilm's system displayed on the 29th of May.

It now began to look like FujiFilm were looking for excuses not to repair the camera under guarantee. Note that the parcel which I sent to FujiFilm included everything which they asked me to send to them. I did not include a receipt for purchase because they did not request one. It was a simple case of FujiFilm fixing a known manufacturing defect. However, while the website said that they "can not offer a warranty repair", it did allow me to click through to find out how much a repair would cost and that led to the following screen:

Note that the total repair price is shown here as € 0.00. At that point it appeared that the non warranty repair was to cost nothing. This was a strange way of dealing with customers, but I was happy with this if it meant they would stick to their original promise of repairing the camera. I clicked on the "Doorgaan met reparatie" (go ahead with repair) button and also sent email asking for clarification.

Fujifilm's photo of battery door damage
which they blame for the Lens Error
Later on the 29th, I received a further email from FujiFilm which made it clear that the € 0.00 which their website had offered us was not the price that they wanted to charge us for repair. Their email included two attachments. One attachment was a photo claiming to show the damage which they claim caused the fault.

I was surprised by the company's insistence that we had damaged the camera because any portable device has to be designed to be robust and this particular camera, though not an "action cam" was actually being sold on the basis of its robustness due to having an aluminium body in place of plastic. In any case, Judy is extremely careful with cameras. She's far more careful than I am, always using a wrist strap, always making sure that the camera is stored in a bag while cycling. It's rare that Judy breaks anything. As such, she was quite upset about dropping her camera from her desk onto a carpeted floor during the first month of ownership, but as this supposedly "robust" camera had shaken off that fall with no sign of what had happened except for a slight deformity around the battery door we forgot about it. Of course, mobile devices do need to be designed to be robust. Such a minor fall should not result in anything other than minor cosmetic damage. This didn't affect operation of the camera at all.

As such, it was clear that this fall had no connection whatsoever with the commonly reported manufacturing fault for which we had returned the camera, but unfortunately FujiFilm were looking for excuses not to repair a fault which was of their own making. Further down this page you'll find other FujiFilm customers report that FujiFilm blamed external damage for the same fault on their XF1 cameras, even when there was no external damage before the product was sent in for repair.

They want to charge us how much ? With no guarantee ?

The other attachment in the email from Fujifilm was a bill for repair. It read as follows (English translation below):

So they're offering to replace the optics and the main printed circuit board, claiming that both were damaged by bending the battery compartment door and demanding a total of €274 for this repair. That's nearly double the original cost of the camera. Note that though the battery door damage is claimed to be important, they're not offering to repair the battery door for this price. What's more, at a total cost of nearly double the original price of the camera, the last paragraph points out that they don't even guarantee that this fix will be all that is required to restore correct operation of the camera.

On June 16th the camera was sent back to us, in exactly the same condition as we sent it to FujiFilm. They have not attempted a repair, but have enclosed a letter which says "As previously communicated several times our technicians confirmed an external damage, from which it results than the warranty is void." Fujifilm has sold us a €150 paperweight. I'm glad I didn't pay full price for this dreadful product.

In the next section I show how we are far from alone in having experienced this problem with the camera and also far from alone in finding that Fujifilm have no interest at all in backing up their guarantee:

How many other people have the same fault ? Getting wise to FujiFilm

Clearly FujiFilm had no intention of providing good customer service so I started to read wider about the problems which other people were having with these cameras. Google turns up more than 2000 results if you search for "xf1 lens control error" and amongst them I found some real gems. Hundreds of people have had exactly the same experience with the cameras as we have, and many of them have received just the same standard of "customer service" as we have:

e.g. dhill complained that:
Has anyone ever gotten Fuji to take responsibility for this "Lens Control Error" issue? I spoke with Fuji yesterday and they told me that this was not considered a "Known Issue" and that it would cost me at least $140 to have repaired (though probably much more, since the lens assembly will most likely need replacing). When I said that there were many documented cases of this defect, the Fuji tech rep laughed at me and said, "so you think because 50 people on a forum have had this issue, it's Fuji's problem?" This is what we're up against, the company keeps pretending that this isn't a mechanical defect on their part, when a quick Google search shows that tons of people are having this same issue. So until Fuji does the right thing and fixes our cameras, we're stuck with $500 paperweights.
There's a huge eleven page thread on Amazon started by YSC in which dozens of people report similar faults:
During this past summer we bought not one, but four XF1s among the friends and family [...] The lens, alas, became the fatal problem, which I'll describe in more detail later. During the summer we shot thousands of pictures, and the camera failed within 6 weeks, right outside the return period. Granted, I shoot a lot more than the average user, but there was no explanation for this. I thought maybe we did something that caused this failure, but in reality we babied the camera without ever abusing it [...] However, in time, ALL of the other three cameras developed the same problem. I purchased these in July, and the last one developed this problem at the beginning of November--the one that's probably the least used. This denotes that the problem isn't isolated, but results from a design flaw, that in my four cameras, caused a 100% failure rate [...] The service rep looked up the info and said that they found a ding on the front of the lens housing, suggesting impact damage, resulting in the lens error, and the warranty was voided. I tried to explain how the front lens housing has a very thin sheet metal, and can easily be dinged (e.g. putting it in the pocket with other things?), and how I have three others in pristine condition with the same problem, proving its irrelevance. 
This is a description of exactly the same symptoms as we had with our camera, and he has also experienced exactly the same response from FujiFilm. That's despite dealing with the US division of FujiFilm while we're in the Netherlands.

Here's another long thread started by Sean65 where multiple people have the same problem. The last post on this thread reads as follows:
Our XF1 had the exact problems as yours.  This one guy had the same problems with 4 units and he documented his experience on amazon.  I knew what I might run into with their repair facility so I did a video of our unit to show there was no "impact damage" which is how the repair facility gets out of warranty repairs apparently.  Sure enough, when I called in, they claimed just that.  I told them that I did a video that would prove that there was no such damage.  They tech told me that he'd call me back after he talked to the manager (NJ repair facility).  He called back and said they'd drop the $140 repair charge and honor the warranty.  If anyone goes this route of a repair, I'd recommend being prepared should they claim "impact damage" if there wasn't.  The aluminum on these has been designed to be worn off with ease to lend itself to this worn retro look and ours had that.  My wife kept it in her purse so you have rubs and little scratches but that's it.  This "lens control error" problem is clearly a design problem and I'm guessing the success rate of the repair facility manager is predicated on how many units they can invalidate the warranties or simply not repair under that status. It's a shame. I love their products or "loved" them.
On youtube you can find a video from someone who had the same error and who tried to take the camera apart to fix it himself. I've not tried this, but as the camera will otherwise be scrapped because FujiFilm won't repair their own product, perhaps I may try it at some point in the future. There is nothing to lose.

There's even a Facebook group specifically for talking about the FujiFilm XF1 Lens Control Error problem. A quote from that group: "My Fujifilm XF1 still has the LENS CONTROL ERROR. Fujifilm just don't want to know. I told them about the problem weeks ago, but they said I would have to pay a minimum of £85 to have them take a look at it. I told them it was a well known fault they knew about the camera and they should cover the cost."

A Dutch review website also has many reports of this same problem with the camera and the same problem with FujiFilm refusing the honour the guarantee.

Don't buy FujiFilm

Some of the reports of the Lens Control Error problem actually date from before I bought our camera. I had even read a couple of them before buying, but I made the assumption that these were isolated problems and that FujiFilm was an honorable company which would put right any faults under guarantee. I was wrong to make that assumption.

This advertisement for a new FujiFilm XF1 states that the
camera has a "two year factory guarantee". Good luck with
that ! It'll go wrong just like all the others and FujiFilm will
refuse to fix it.
This is probably the poorest customer service I've ever experienced. I will never buy a FujiFilm product again, and I suggest that you don't either. How can I trust any product from a company which doesn't back up their guarantee even when it is clear that the failure was due to a manufacturing defect which affects hundreds of customers ?

You can still buy these cameras new. The lowest prices now are under €80, which would of course be a ridiculous bargain if the build quality of the camera was anythere near what it supposed to be. No other manufacturer's cameras of similar claimed performance are discounted to anything like this extent. There's a good reason why this is the case.

If you're offered a FujiFilm camera, even at a sharply discounted price, RUN AWAY.

Youtube videos from other FujiFilm customers

Other people have made youtube videos showing their reaction after FujiFilm have refused to honour the guarantee for these cameras. Here are some examples:

Finally, this chap found a "solution":

It's a "solution" which others have found too:

The serial number of our camera is 2DQ42707. As I understand it, the first digit indicates the camera was manufactured some time in 2012. They'd been for sale for quite some time before we bought ours.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Three year solar anniversary. 10 Megawatt hours from the sun.

5 o'clock in the afternoon on Sunday 5 April 2015. Almost exactly three years since this installation went online. Generating just short of 2800 W at the moment when this photo was taken.
Three years ago exactly, we had an array of 16 large solar panels installed on the roof of our home. I can now report on how well they've done over those three years.

The graph
Each panel has a nominal 225 W output, for a total of 3600 W. These figures are not the often inflated figures which you see from cheap solar products, but realistic figures allowing for aging and including compensation for siting. In fact, our panels occasionally over-perform slightly relative to their specification. Our peak recorded output is 3997 W. That's enough electricity to actually do something useful - like run our home and business.
The monthly electricity generation figures are in blue, consumption is in red. The yellow line shows the sum. You'll note how this goes upwards in summer as we generate more electricity than we use, and downwards in winter when we generate less than we use. Note how both the blue and yellow make a very fine approximations to sine waves - exactly as they should given that these numbers result from the circular orbit of the earth around the sun.
Our electricity meter shows a very
slightly higher reading now than
3 years ago. The explanation of why
 is on the left.
The graph shows that in the first year we used slightly more electricity than we produced. In the second year we did slightly better than break-even and in the third year we used somewhat less electricity than we produced. That's why the lowest dip on the yellow line has risen upwards towards unity for the lifetime of the panels. Given that solar panels can only degrade in use (the light which must fall on the panels in order for them to generate electricity also slowly destroys them) this may seem surprising.

Actually there's a very simple explanation. The output of the panels hasn't increased, but our consumption genuinely has dropped. This isn't due to change in behaviour (we've not changed appliances, nearly all our lightbulbs were already LED). The main reason why is that our children left to set up their own homes so our energy consumption has dropped by two peoples' use.

Ten megawatt hours from the sun
The readout on the inverter says 10200 kWh. That's an average of 3400 kWh per year for the first three years. Our installer calculated an estimate of 3150 kWh per year so the panels and inverter are performing 8% better than expected. The three year anniversary date, the 5th of April, was a bright day for this time of year and we generated 17.5 kWh. On the best bright summer days we beat that figure. However the average daily generation over the three year period is 9.3 kWh per day.

The average is so much lower than the peak because on the gloomiest days of winter we generate far less than we do in summer. While in July 2014 we generated a total of 494 kWh - an impressive average of 16 kWh each day, in December 2014 we generated just 54 kWh in total which is just 1.7 kWh per day. i.e. barely more than a tenth in December vs. July. While in July we generate almost twice as much electrical energy as we consume, in December we generate less than a fifth of our consumption.

The variation of output with solar power generation is an important constraint. It makes no sense at all to install them in less than ideal locations, where they're always partially shaded or facing in the wrong direction, because if you do this then the amount of electricity generated will be lower by a considerable margin at all times.

Note that the peak production requires ideal conditions. Our panels are at very close to the ideal angle and they are not shaded. Less good conditions reduce output to one tenth.

What happens at night / during winter ?
In the case of a setup like ours, we rely upon the national grid to make up the difference between night and day and between winter and summer. People often imagine that an array of batteries would allow us to store energy generated in the daytime to use in the evening. This is not nearly so practical a proposition as the proponents of storage imagine because actually we would need a far larger array to store what we generate in summer so that we could use it in winter. A battery which could store six months worth of electricity would not fit in a small corner of our home. It would require a battery which weighed of the order of 40 tons, and this would pose a considerable short-circuit, fire and explosion hazard due to the dangerously large amount of energy being stored in one place.

Luckily, at this point in history, society's consumption is higher in daytime than at night-time so the power that we supply to the grid during most days is useful to offset what would otherwise perhaps be generated by less clean methods. However at night-time our personal consumption goes up as this is when we choose to turn on lights.

Practically, if human-kind is to become more reliant on renewable sources of energy such as solar, we're going to have to stop doing as much at night as we do in the day (especially on days when there's little wind to run wind turbines), and we're perhaps also going to have to live on more of an energy budget during the winter than we have available to us in the summer. Rather than worrying about a future in which we won't be able to continue on the negative and destructive path which we are on at the moment, I would see this as a positive development. Let's start living within our means without destroying the environment on which our survival depends.

Our solar cells work nine times so hard as I do
I calculated a while back that a human being doing a hard manual job only has the potential to generate about 1 kWh of useful energy in a day's work. That's about it for human beings. In energy terms we're worth about one "unit" of electricity a day. About 20 cents worth at current Dutch prices. People who sit behind desks for the day (as I generally have done) of course produce rather less energy.

Sci-fi film "The Matrix" relies on a plot device of machines keeping human beings imprisoned in a dream-like state in order to generate energy. It's a good plot device which makes for enjoyable fiction, but it's a completely absurd notion in reality. Human beings are a terrible energy source. The machines would be far better off building arrays of solar panels than keeping human beings alive.

My history with solar power
I've been experimenting with solar power on or around my home since 1986 when I bought a couple of surplus 12" square 12 V 2.5 W solar panels and installed them on the roof of my parents' house. These generated a trickle of electricity which I used to charge batteries for some of my devices. I ran an early laptop computer off the solar panels... sometimes. For much of the year there was simply not enough light falling on these inefficient panels to do very much at all. Later on they were doubled in number and ran a 12 V lighting system in my shed. They also sometimes ran a home-made bicycle lighting setup. However while this worked splendidly in summer when I hardly needed the lights at all, in winter there was not enough power generated to keep those lights working for daily use so they were mostly charged from mains electricity.

In the 1990s this low voltage system was boosted by installing a more modern and efficient 30 W panel which I still have installed on the top of my garage here in the Netherlands and which keeps a 12 V battery topped up. Unfortunately, this is not ideally sited, there's shade due to a neighbour's tree, so it rarely produces anything like its maximum output.

I also have a small solar panel installed on the top of my velomobile. In the summer this tops up the battery which powers the lights and indicators and provided I don't do too much night time riding but do have the velomobile out in the sun, I don't have to charge the battery. In the winter it does nothing much at all. Nevertheless, there are people who see this small solar panel (approximately 25 x 15 cm - 375 cm^2) and somehow imagine that the energy generated by it propels me rather than my own muscles. It actually doesn't come close. The rated power output is only about 1.5 W. 1.5 W is enough energy to propel me at 0.5 km/h. Note that I have never seen close to the rated output from this solar panel because while it's not in shadow unless I cycle under a tree or it's indoor, the panel is never mounted at the ideal angle to the sun, and of course in the real world I'm often cycling at times of day other than mid-day in summer.

In the past I was also involved in design of solar powered bus time-table signs. This meant a very low energy budget for the microprocessor which we could use, and required us to design a very simple black and white LC display (not very many segments, but each segment quite large to make a physically large display because the power consumption comes from how many drivers you need, not how large the display is). Even though we put considerable effort into this design we could still not be absolutely certain it would last through the dark days of winter so we had to also install a back-up power supply consisting of super capacitors to at least get us through the nights but also a string of long life disposable batteries to ensure service just in case we simply didn't have enough energy from the solar cells. Sadly, one of the marketing oriented people connected to this project suggested that the solar panels should be mere decoration ("It looks green. No-one will know"). That is when I started looking for work elsewhere...

There's a pattern
Note that all the problems with solar power regardless of scale come down to there being little energy to use in winter or if the panels are installed in less than ideal circumstances. You need only a slight shadow to drastically cut the output of solar panels. This brings us to...

Absurd wishful thinking about solar
Unfortunately, solar power is attractive to people who don't understand these issues at all. I guess it's something about the idea of getting energy from "nothing". Something about a dream of "clean" energy replacing "dirty" energy.

One of the most well publicized ridiculous solar ideas of the last few years is the "solar road". This is the idea of making road surfaces out of solar panels. This is a bad idea for very many reasons. Roads are made of relatively cheap and robust materials for a reason: heavy vehicles and weather both take their toll on the surface. On the other hand, solar panels are expensive and rather fragile. It makes no sense at all to run heavy vehicles on top of them. What's more, solar panels need to be completely free of shadow and angled correctly towards the sun to collect maximum light. Neither of these things is possible if the panel is built into a road surface. Because solar panels are expensive, both in terms of cost and embedded energy, they must have a long life-span in order to repay that cost, again both in terms of cost and actually having a positive environmental benefit. A "solar cycle-path" has actually been built here in the Netherlands (I wrote about this before), and it's just as stupid an idea as the solar road. Within a few weeks of being installed it had already failed. This thing will never repay its cost. It will always be a better idea, both cheaper and more effective, to install the same solar cells on buildings with south facing roofs alongside the road.

This week I came across two more examples of absurd wishful thinking about the potential of solar power. The first was a bicycle with solar cells in the wheels.

The bicycle is claimed to be able to travel at a high speed due to an electric motor powered by the solar cells but the energy input which can be expected from two wheel sized solar panels, which will never be at an ideal angle to the sun and will always be at least partly in shade, can never add up to enough to propel the bicycle. Let's do some numbers: The side area of a bicycle wheel is about 11500 cm^2 (61cm ^2 * PI). We can expect to fit only about 80% of the surface with rectangular panels, leaving about 9400 cm^2. That's about 25 times the area of the panel on my velomobile. If the rated efficiency of those panels is the same as the (quite good) panel fitted to my velomobile then we can expect 25 times the energy production, or about 37 W. That's enough to propel a roadster bicycle at about 11 km/h. However, in reality we won't get anywhere near this figure. That's what we can expect if the wheel is tilted at the correct angle to the sun at mid-day in the middle of summer near the equator. Actually these panels are guaranteed always to be partially in shade, the bicycle won't only be used at mid-day in summer at the equator, and the angle of the panels vs. the sun will never be correct. It's not realistic to expect more than 5 W per wheel. Even that is highly unlikely in my opinion. 10 W in total adds up to a speed of less than 5 km/h. The person pushing this idea has obviously been challenged in the past about the impossibility of what he claims because he's actually claiming to have "shadow optimized solar panels". Of course in the real world no-one makes solar panels for shadow. It's an absurd notion. The energy is in the light. Shadows always contain less energy than well lit areas and even very slight shadowing dramatically drops output. This design is simply yet another piece of nonsense from a 'designer' who will never be able to produce a practical implementation. This is before we even get into the well-known problems of riding disk-wheel bicycles with side-winds, or of wear and tear on the fragile wheel, or what effect a minor crash or merely dropping a bicycle the wheels of which contain fragile solar panels will have on those panels. If it's built then it will come with a mains powered charger and good old "dirty" energy from the grid is where the energy which drives it will really come from. That's especially true for overnight charging, remember, because no-one's solar panels are contributing to the grid at night.

The second example of wishful thinking was from someone who appeared to think that cheap Chinese "solar chargers" actually do charge mobile telephones. Again, we can do calculations. The solar panels on these devices often measure no more than 15 cm in length and 5 cm wide. i.e. a fifth of the size of the panel on my velomobile. That means we can expect only 1/5th of the energy production, or around 0.3 W. That, remember, is in ideal conditions. i.e. the solar panel is mounted at the correct angle mid-day in a place near the equator. Don't expect to come close to that figure. It is unlikely that in the real world such a panel ever generates more than 1/10th of this amount for a significant period of time because it won't ever be mounted at the correct angle and will rarely see full mid-day sun at the equator. I'll be absurdly generous and assume that we can get an output which is a third of the specification: This means 0.1 W. Now take a look at real life charging rates for real devices.  It takes 10 hours to charge an iPad from an iPhone charger. Why ? Because the iPhone charger supplies "only" 5 W. How long can we expect it to take to charge from our solar charger ? 50 times as long. i.e. 500 hours continuous. Because it works only during relatively bright sunshine, let's be generous and assume 8 hours a day. The charging time would be 62 days. Except that it wouldnt - because actually an iPad discharges its battery in far less than 62 days so this solar charge in reality can't charge the device at all. It's like trying to fill a bath one tea-spoon at a time when the plug has been pulled out. It's emptying faster than it charges.

That is why "solar chargers" always also offer the facility to charge them using USB connections. In reality they are always charged from the mains power grid and never from their inbuilt solar panel.

Many cheap "solar" products are in fact fake. The first one I found was a "solar powered" calculator which a friend of mine owned in the 1980s. When the battery ran out, it stopped working no matter how long we left it in sunshine. I took it apart and discovered that the "solar cell" was just a piece of coloured plastic. Other people have found similar fake devices and that includes "solar chargers".

In reality the energy consumption of mobile phones doesn't even lie in the telephone itself but in the huge consumption of server rooms. This blog is hosted on one of the many servers which belongs to Google - which are surprisingly environmentally destructive.

IT already consumes 10% of the electricity generated on the planet. It's already more energy intensive than flying, and this problem is growing. A few hipsters trying to charge their telephones from pointing a small solar panel in the wrong direction while cycling to buy a latte will not avert a global environmental catastrophe.

Companies like Google try to claim to be carbon neutral, but they do so by using the slight of hand called "offsetting". This is greenwash.

Why bother ?
In my opinion, solar power is very valuable indeed. However, as with all things we have to use it within its limitations. Wishful thinking does not influence real life results.

For the individual, domestic PV solar power installations are ridiculously good value for money. Probably one of the best investments you can make at the present time. This is because even without a special feed in tariff (the Netherlands doesn't have one) you are in most places effectively "paid" the retail price including taxation for the electricity which you generate and therefore no longer have to buy.

For the planet the situation is different. In the daytime we generate more electricity than we use and then at night time we turn on all our lights. I am under no illusions that electricity which we generate in the daytime is used by us at night time. Storage of electricity is on a minute scale world-wide - it's a problem that simply has not been solved, and perhaps there is no good solution (for various reasons there is no reason to believe that batteries will be able to do this). Solar is certainly part of a cleaner future, but at some point we will all have to change our behaviour to use energy when it's available, rather than whenever we want it. The rest of the time we will have to be happy with the 1 kWh per day which our own bodies can produce.

Oh, and don't get me started about the people who imagine that mobile phone chargers waste vast amounts of energy. They don't. Anyone who concerns themselves with this particular problem would be better off looking at real energy consumption figures.

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.

Since we moved here seven years ago, our nearest bicycle
tunnel has had water in it twice after heavy rainfall. It's a
slight inconvenience which clears itself within minutes or
hours. This is not really flooding.
I should make it clear that there have been reports of flooding and the media here plays it up somewhat. However, all they've actually had to report upon was heavy rainfall causing a few cm of water to stay for a few minutes or a couple of hours in obviously difficult places such as underpasses, or occasionally especially vulnerable cellars. Such problems are resolved very quickly. For instance, in one example last year I returned home two hours after my wife to find that her feet had got slightly wet as she cycled through a "flooded" underpass. When I'd cycled along the same route there was not even a puddle. This and related incidents nearby made it into the local press as "flooding".

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.
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 !

200 m from our home, is this drainage ditch next to a
 cycle-path next to a canal with house-boats. This cycle
, 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 four 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 four times 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.

Dredging four times a year
When I first wrote this blog post I suggested that the drainage ditches around Assen were dredged twice a year. I had not checked and I didn't want to make an inaccurate claim. However, I've had to amend that in the face of yesterday's dredging - the third time this has happened so far this year. It's a three monthly event. Four times a year. Here's video of the machine at work on September 10th:

In September 2014, the drainage ditch near our home was dredged for the third time this year. Maintenance is remarkably regular and comprehensive. Not only dredging, but all the other things that Britain puts off as well. This is why Britain floods but the Netherlands does not. It comes down to actually doing the work.

In other news, the Netherlands has also just announced that there is to be €20 Billion invested in a new Deltaworks. This is to prevent the chance that the existing extensive sea dykes will prove inadequate. 1500 km of the existing 3700 km of dyke are to be upgraded at a cost of between €7M and €9M per kilometre.

Update Christmas 2015
Britain has "widespread flooding" once again. The map on the right shows the 190 flood warnings in force across the UK over the Christmas holiday. Those which are red involve risk to life.

Of course, this didn't come about with no warning at all. Some "defences" broke down for the fourth time in a month during these particular floods. Some homes were flooded for the third time in one month.

Even the language being used is a bit ludicrous. If a flood "defence" isn't adequate to stop the water, then it is not really a defence against flooding.

Britain is simply still not investing anything like enough in flood defences. Though it seems that there is now some consideration that a "rethink" might be required, the emphasis seems to be on such things as "solid floors, waterproof plaster, more electrics up the wall - so that people can get into their houses and businesses more quickly", which are not quite the same thing as preventing flooding from happening in the first place.

Meanwhile, here in the Netherlands - the country which many British people imagine is more vulnerable to flooding than their own - we've had no flooding at all.

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.


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.