Wednesday, 30 October 2019

The forgotten energy saving potential of the microwave oven (also quick low impact vegan pizza recipe)

The recipe book which came with my
first microwave over in the 1980s
Click these links for the recipe without the story, to find out how much CO2 was emitted, or for how far you can cycle using only the energy in the pizza.

Back in the early 80s I bought a microwave oven for my mother with some of my earnings from my first job. Microwave ovens were not really a new invention but they were not entirely commonplace yet in the UK. I don't think my Mum really wanted a microwave at the time, but she became quite convinced by it and made quite good use of it because it allowed some recipes to be cooked just as well before, but in less time. A year or so afterwards I packed in the dead end job and became a student but my accommodation consisted of one room in a building with no shared kitchen. For several months I ate nothing but salad for my evening meal, which was healthy enough but ultimately not so varied, so I bought a second microwave oven and began to learn to cook with it.

Microwave ready meals were not really a thing in the early 1980s so people didn't buy microwave ovens merely to warm up frozen pizzas. Because many owners had no previous experience with microwave ovens they were supplied with information about how the oven worked, what it was useful for, and complete recipe books. My first microwave oven was a Samsung and it came with this book.

They were both full of tempting looking meals,
completely cooked by microwave
Inside the Samsung book there were a wide range of recipes some of which became favourites during my student days. However this book was of course aimed at every potential buyer so it included a lot of non-vegetarian recipes which were of no use to me so I bought a second book which while not completely vegetarian did include a lot more recipes for things that I wanted to eat.

I ate fairly healthy food when I was a student, and very nearly every evening for a period of years I prepared my meal in the microwave oven, everything cooked from fresh ingredients. The budget was small but the food was good.

Microwave ovens are not the best way of cooking every type of food. Some of my experiments as a student were not total successes. For example, at that time I didn't understand about how bread was made and I once ended up making my lunch sandwiches out of incredibly dense lumps of dough for half a week because I couldn't afford to throw anything away. But microwaves have advantages for some kinds of cooking.

The forgotten potential
My old microwave cookbooks include short descriptions of why microwave cooking is advantageous. For instance, the microwave oven consumes far less energy than a conventional oven to achieve the same result, it saves time and it's less dangerous to use because it doesn't get hot in itself.

Much of the potential seems to have been forgotten with microwave ovens now being seen by many people as useful only to warm up low quality frozen food.

We've done this with our produce. Quick, easy and effective.
There is more awareness now than there was 35 years ago that we really should be trying to consume less energy, but while we now have an image of ourselves as being "green", we actually consume twice as much electricity now as we did back then. The average person was actually more frugal before anyone had LED lighting in their home or solar panels on their roofs.

These books are full of recipes for proper food.
Now, more than ever, we need to address our excessive energy consumption and enormous CO2 emissions. We can start in the kitchen. Switching to a vegan diet is of course enormously beneficial because a plant-based diet produces far lower emissions than does a meat and dairy based diet. But we can go beyond just the savings due to the ingredients we use by changing how we cook.

An online discussion a few days ago revealed how remarkably energy and carbon intensive a pizza can be if it is a frozen pizza, warmed up and delivered to your home. There's no obvious reason why a pizza should be so damaging. It is, after all, basically just tomatoes on toast. However this prompted me to think about one of my favourite dishes when I was a student: microwave quick pizza. This took no time to make and included no exotic ingredients so surely had a low footprint.


Quick low impact inexpensive vegan pizza

I clearly referred to this page quite often
when I was a student.
When I was a student, one of my favourite recipes was a basic microwave pizza. This took less than 15 minutes to cook from scratch, it was very simple, it was tasty and it was nutritious.

The original quick pizza recipe which I used as a student of course used cheese as a topping, but I've been vegan for decades now and so I always substitute something else. There are many commercial cheese substitutes. I've tried most of them in the past, some are better than others and you may well find one that you really like. However we cook from basic ingredients every day so we don't usually have things like "vegan cheese" in our refrigerator. For the pizza which I've made for my lunch today I've used nuts as a substitute for cheese. That may sound a bit, well, nuts, but it's not actually a bad substitute. Nuts contrast with the tomato, they provide protein and oil as does cheese and in any case many commercial vegan "cheeses" are made at least in part of nuts.
Ingredients for the base (makes one pizza)
120 g self rising flour
20 ml olive oil
35-45 ml water
pinch of salt

Ingredients for the topping
100 g tinned tomatoes, drained.
10 g peanuts, crushed.
1/2 small onion.
2 cloves garlic.
Basil, oregano, salt and pepper, nutritional yeast to taste.

Instructions
Mix all the base ingredients together into a dough. Add the water slowly as you want a nice dough and not something too sticky.

Slightly oil a plate and spread the pizza dough on it. It's not a bad idea to make sure that the sides are slightly high to contain the topping, but the topping shouldn't really be wet so this isn't actually very important.

Microwave on full power for about 3 minutes. The pizza base will become puffy and rise slightly.

While the base is in the microwave you have time to drain the tomatoes (if they're too wet then the entire pizza will be too wet), chop them, crush the peanuts in a mortar and pestle and also finely chop the onion and garlic.

When the pizza base is ready, spread the onion and garlic on top and microwave for two more minutes. This softens the onion a bit, which doesn't happen so readily if you put it in with the tomato already on top.

Now add the tomato, herbs and crushed nuts and microwave for another 3-4 minutes.

Add salt, pepper, nutritional yeast to taste.

Perhaps not the best pizza in the world. Perhaps some people wouldn't even consider it to be a "true" pizza. I don't much care. It's tasty, nutritious, quick to prepare from scratch and it's all I've got for lunch today.
I like cabbage, perhaps more than most people, so I added some of that to the topping as well at the same time as the onions and garlic. I also added capers before the last microwave step and I topped it off at the very end with a few small tomatoes from our garden (it's nearly November but we still have the last of the fresh tomatoes) and a few basil leaves also from the garden. You can add anything you like.

Obviously if you're alergic to peanuts you should substitute something else. Nothing is very critical. It will probably also work with gluten free flour.

Note: This isn't a real bread recipe. It's more like a recipe for a scone (you can make good scones in the microwave). The rising action in this case is the result of a chemical reaction with the sodium bicarbonate in the self rising flour. This chemical is all that distinguishes self rising flour from normal flour and you can just add a tiny quantity yourself (its sold as baking powder) to normal flour if you want. Baking with yeast is different. If I had know about that difference when I was a student I wouldn't have had to eat solid bread for a week (see story above).
0.08 kWh consumed in
the 19 minutes it took to
make the pizza, write
down what I was doing
and take all the photos.

A low carbon meal

Having cooked and eaten the pizza we can now calculate the CO2 emissions which resulted from it. The electricity is easy: There are articles online which show the carbon intensity of electricity for different countries. Exact figures vary but for the Netherlands, and across Europe, around 500 g/kWh seems to about average. My plug-in usage meter measured 0.08 kWh used in total by the microwave. Generating that amount of electricity would normally result in about 40 g of CO2 being released. Because I cooked this pizza at lunch-time the microwave oven was actually entirely powered by our own solar panels. The electricity meter span backwards the whole time. But I will stick with the 40 g for this calculation as it's more representative.

Impacts for the ingredients are taken from this link (it refers to Finland, but I can't see most of them would vary much elsewhere).

Ingredient Quantity (g) CO2 equivalent (kg/kg) Total CO2 (g) kcal
Electricity 0.08 kW 500 g/W 40
Flour 120 0.8 96 400
Olive oil 20 1.5 30 160
Water 40 0.5 (for mineral water. I used tap water) 20
Salt000
Tinned tomatoes1000.3 (vegetable juice)3019
Peanuts102.3 (nuts and almonds)2361
Onion300.2612
Garlic100.223
Cabbage300.397
Capers50.10.5
Herbs, salt, pepper500
Total carbon footprint / calories256.5 g662

So I've calculated that my lunch had a total impact calculated of around 260 g CO2. I've been a bit unkind to myself because our electricity has a lower impact, at least in the daytime, and my water definitely has a lower impact as it came from the tap - I never buy mineral water so in this case around 200 g was probably more accurate. Either way, the total is small enough to fit into most carbon budgets.

The total weight of the finished pizza was about 370 g (very little liquid had a chance to evaporate, and the rest of the ingredients stayed in the plate). So the impact of a pizza made in this was is 0.7 kg CO2/kg food. This makes sense because it's somewhere in the middle of the impact of the ingredients themselves. It's a very long way removed from the 19 kg/kg figure given at the link for "pizza", but it's clear that what they're referring to is a ready made or delivered meal of some kind.

Another study suggested that a frozen pizza in Norway could have an impact on the climate equivalent to as much as 290 kg CO2. My recipe has less than 1% of that impact.

Conclusion
Following the recipe above you too can make a pizza which is quick to prepare, tasty, nutritious and has about 1/30th of the environmental impact of a delivered pizza. If it had been cooked in a conventional oven then the energy consumption would have been far higher. The energy saving potential of microwave ovens is largely not appreciated, but it should be. We are killing our planet with over-consumption of many things, including energy.


Addendum: What can we do with 662 calories?
662 calories is more than a quarter of the daily requirement for an average man and very close to a third of the recommended daily for an average woman. We need to eat that amount every day just to be healthy. We also need to exercise for about half an hour every day. So let's work out what can be achieved by using those calories.

We should always bear in mind that we need 30 minutes of exercise every day just to maintain a healthy body. In 30 minute we can cover 15 km on a bicycle, so by cycling we effectively get 15 km of travel for free every day with no impact on the environment over that of the food we have to eat anyway.

Velomobiles are the most efficient vehicles on the planet. But can you get a
subsidy to buy one of these ? Of course not. However the Dutch government
will give you €6000 to buy an electric car which produces far more pollution.
However if we ignore that and simply plug the calories that we have into a calculator and work out the potential then we find that with a standard town bike we can ride an impressive 32 km at just over 20 km/h using nothing more than the energy from the pizza. If we use a more efficient type of bicycle then we can cover 46 kms at 30 km/h using just that pizza as fuel. That works out as about 5.65 grams of CO2 emissions per km for the efficient bicycle and about 8 g CO2 per km for a standard bicycle. By comparison, in the Netherlands, an electric car produces about 60 g CO2 per km and a diesel car anywhere about 120 g per km.

A cyclist can easily travel with a tenth of the emissions of the driver of even one of the most efficient cars, but even that comparison is unfair because actually we get our first 15 km for free.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

The surprising cost of a pilot light (waakvlam)

We have a low energy bill. This is the case because we've done quite a lot of work in our home to improve the insulation so that our central heating rarely comes on, and we've tackled our electricity consumption by installing solar panels. However, we've not yet done anything to the gas equipment in our home which was already here when we moved in 12 years ago, in part because until now it's not been easy to tell which piece of equipment used most gas so should be targeted first.

While we've had a smart electricity meter for almost a year now, and I've used a plug in measuring device for much longer to check which appliances had higher than expected consumption, our energy company didn't install a smart gas meter until a week ago. The old meter was not easy to read for small levels of usage. But the new meter has made it easy to find out something which I had long wondered about: How much of our not very high gas consumption was wasted to no effect.
The new gas meter. Since installation we've burnt 5.725 cubic metres of gas.
The gas water heater
How much gas does a pilot light (waakvlam) use ?
Our house has three devices which run on gas: The gas hob in the kitchen, the central heating boiler and a separate water heater which heats water only for the shower, bath and bathroom sink.

The water heater is really old. Old enough to use a pilot light (waakvlam) instead of starting itself with an electronic igniter whenever hot water is required.

If you're unfamiliar with what that means, there is a very small flame which burns continuously, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, just waiting for someone to turn on the hot tap so that it can be used to ignite a much larger flame to heat water.

In the past I've asked several people who work for the gas company, or otherwise seem to know about gas appliances how much gas is used by such a flame and I've always been re-assured that it's "next to nothing", "unmeasurable" or "similar to a mobile phone charger", but I was never quite convinced. The new gas meter has allowed me to measure how much gas is being consumed and the result is surprising.

The pilot light. It's small, but any gas burnt here is wasted.
Meten is Weten. It costs how much ?
One day this week we took readings from the gas meter while avoiding using any gas appliance for 18 and a half hours so that period passed with only the pilot light burning gas. Over 18.5 hours, the meter showed that 0.283 cubic metres had been consumed. That equates to 0.366 cubic metres per day or 134 cubic metres per year.

134 cubic metres of gas isn't insignificant at all ! In fact, it turns out that in summer months our gas usage is dominated by the consumption of the pilot light, which consumes more than we use for hot water and cooking combined. Over the whole year it consumes rather more gas than we use in February to heat our home. It's an appalling waste not only of gas but also of money: That pilot light costs us nearly €90 a year to run.

Like a phone charger ?
The comparison made previously with a mobile phone charger is particularly absurd as phone chargers genuinely do consume an unmeasurably small amount of electricity when they're not in use (unplugging them is something that some people do in an obsessional way because it looks like it'll save energy, when actually the effect is almost nothing at all). But this pilot light consumes a very measurable amount of gas. 134 cubic metres of gas is equivalent to about 1340 kWh of electricity. If a phone charger used that much it would certainly be measurable. It would also add somewhat more than €100 a year to the electricity bill and the charger would be rather hot rather than cold to the touch.

The next step
Obviously this old water heater has to go. That has long been the plan because actually we'd like to get rid of gas altogether. It's not happened yet because we prioritized insulation and electricity first. But discovering how much this thing wastes has given new urgency to the plan. At the very least we need to be rid of this water heater. It appears to be possible to buy an instant electric heater for about the annual cost of the gas for this, and an electric heater would effectively cost nothing to use because it would operate on the excess electricity from our solar panels which we currently export to the grid and for which the electricity company pays us very little. So I expect to change this quite soon.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Seven years of solar power: How valuable is our solar energy ?

I've been interested in solar energy since before I can remember. My first practical experience beyond things like solar powered calculators was in the mid 1980s when I put a square meter of surplus panels on the roof of my parent's home. These provided 12 V DC which I used, amongst other things, to charge the battery in my then quite new laptop computer. It wasn't until seven years ago, though, that we installed a large system on our home and the seventh anniversary of that system passed on April 5th.

Seven year summary
We have 16 panels each rated for 235 W output for a total of a 3760 W peak. In this part of the world it is usual to calculate the expected total output as the equivalent of 925 hours of full sun each year on the panels, giving an predicted output of 3478 kWh per year. In practice, over the last seven years our system produced 23601 kWh in total or an average of 3372 kWh per year.

Output per month over seven years. Red bars show our electricity consumption, blue bars show the production from our panels and the yellow line shows where we are in total now relative to where we began. Our production in is higher than our consumption on average, though obviously that is not the case in the winter. The kink in the yellow line from July 2018 is the period during which our inverter was not working (I repaired it myself)
Several things contribute to the slightly lower output relative to the estimate: Our panels are mounted at the angle of the roof and not at whatever the ideal angle might be, they face South West rather than directly towards the South. But the most damaging thing so far as the average is concerned is that our inverter failed last year and so we had no output at all for a few weeks during the sunnier than average month of July. Calculating out average output for the six years before the inverter problem we come to 3410 kWh per year which is within 2% of the prediction.

Return on investment
The monetary value of the electricity which we've generated is about 20 cents per kWh for that which we use ourselves and about 7 kWh for the excess that we export to the grid. We have exported about 1200 kWh in total for a value of €84 and consumed about 22400 kWh ourselves for which we would otherwise have had to pay about €4500. In total, then, about €4600 has been returned from our original €8000 investment. If the same rate of return continues then the system will have taken 12 years to pay for itself.

Our new smartmeter. When the photo was taken
everything electrical in our home was powered
from the panels and 2 kW was being exported
to the grid.
If the inverter fails again and this time we have to replace it then that will of course increase the repayment time. This might happen. However the panels themselves are expected to last much longer than the repayment period.

A smart meter
Something else which changed last year was that our electricity meter was replaced in December.

The new meter doesn't give us any real advantage over the old mechanical meter which span backwards just as enthusiastically as forwards for nearly seven years. The electricity costs us the same amount either way around.

Of course it does offer an advantage to the electricity company because they no longer have to ask us to read the meter or visit to do so themselves.

What the new meter does give me, though, is that it counts differently and therefore I have a little more information for future calculations. While we pay the same amount of electricity in peak and off peak periods, the meter displays them separately, for both inbound and outbound electricity. So now we can see how much electricity we consume at night time and we can see how much leaves our home rather than being consumed here.

Solar electricity is more valuable than average because it is
generated at peak times of consumption (source)
Perhaps after a year of recording this information I'll have something which which I can create an interesting graph. Thus far I have just three and a half months of this extra data, all of it from winter and spring. There's not much contrast to see.

What has long been obvious of course, and is also visible even in the small amount of data which I have now, is that our electricity is generated only in the daytime and then mostly on sunnier days. As it happens, solar electricity remains quite valuable in the Netherlands because this daytime generation corresponds reasonably well with peak usage. That means that the electricity which we export, most of what we generate, is almost certainly of use to someone else.

The first thing I made the prototype
hardware do was wiggle a GPIO and
then send serial data as shown here.
Software for a smart meter
I'm late to have a smart meter installed but as it happens, I spent a few months two years ago working on software for the prototype smart meter hardware of one of several competing manufacturers. I'm almost certain that the meter that I have now is not related to the manufacturer for whom I did the work, so my code is almost certainly not involved in reporting my own electricity usage, but as I'll never open the box of the meter and look inside, I'll never know for certain.

It was quite an interesting project for a while because it was like a return to the old days for me, when I worked on 8 bit processors and embedded software. This work was with what for me was a new processor, the Renesas RL78. It's a quirky 8/16 bit design. The RL78 assembler is styled so that the source code looks a bit like that for the Z80, but the processor is really completely different. In total I had 32 kB of flash and 4 kB of RAM to work with. These days that doesn't sound like much at all but that means this device has about the same amount of memory as the guidance computers which took Apollo to the moon so it's enough to do great things. In this case it's in a finger nail sized package which consumes micro-watts, and the little RL78 can of course compute many times faster than the AGC.

Power for a home and a business
We generate more than enough electricity to power both our home and our business, though of course I always point out that we're not actually doing so at night, or on darker days in the winter. Anyway, if you want a support a solar powered bicycle business which uses no powered vehicles then you can do so here:

Monday, 17 December 2018

Upgrading Windows to version 3 (Continuing to insulate our home with triple glazing)

Our windows were fitted by Van Dijk Services
Assen. They did a good job so deserve a link.
We knew we'd have to do something about the insulation of our home in Assen before we even moved in and every year we've made some change to improve the energy efficiency of our home. One of the oddities of 1970s Dutch homes is that while they had double glazing on the main rooms on the ground floor, it was quite common to have single glazing in places like the hall and all of the bedrooms upstairs. We fixed that problem eight years ago by installing HR++ double glazing to replace all the single glass and this was very effective. But we kept the same older windows downstairs.

It took a while for us to get around to considering the downstairs windows because we were busy with insulating the floor, the roof, the walls, installing solar panels on the roof, our bicycle parts business, and generally getting on with life, but we've now begun. In fact, we did one of the smaller panes last year because the old double glazing had developed a leak and we took this as an opportunity to experiment with triple glazing. We made measurements and found that it was effective. When the outside temperature was -2 C and the inside temperature 17.5 C the temperature of the inside of a double glazed pane was measured as 9 C while the inside of the triple glazed window alongside it measured 14 C. Clearly we could stay warmer with less heating if we replaced more of the old double glazing downstairs in our home with triple glazing.

Thus far we've replaced the glass only on the front of our home. We're still not entirely sure what we'll do on the back of house, but there is less than half the area of double glazing in the living room on the back compared with the front.

One of the old panes being removed

The replacement coming into place. It took some lifting because it weighed 127 kg.

Fixing into place

Just fitted, not made neat and tidy yet.

A tidy job completed. We now have to wait a couple of days before we can clean the glass because the sealant has to dry first.
Travel less, nor more, insulate your home
and don't eat meat
.
We hope this will reduce our gas consumption and our heating bill. We already have a very low energy bill because we generate more electricity than we use. The gas bill, which covers cooking and water heating as well as heating, is also low and has reduced each year. Dutch bills are increasing quite sharply this year due to increased tax on gas, but our estimate for next year is the same as this year, and the energy company doesn't know that we've taken measures which hopefully will reduce our usage further.

It's becoming more and more obvious to us that we can't continue to increase our energy usage but must decrease it. We must decrease our burning of fossil fuels. There is little time left to do this. The IPCC report from the 8th of October told us that emissions need to be reduced to zero in 12 years time. Who is doing enough to make that happen ?

Because of our concerns we are not only continuing to make our home more efficient but have also got rid of our car and stopped our business of offering holidays and study tours. Encouraging people to make international journeys to cycle is just not of this time. We must all stop behaving as if we can do whatever we like without consequences. Our children and our grandchildren, not to mention millions of people in poorer countries, are being made to pay for our own selfishness.

Yesterday afternoon. Four identical houses, ours is on the left. We're winning the race to keep ice on the roof from melting. Luckily it was somewhat warmer today.
January Update: Is it effective ?
We will really only know how effective the triple glazing is after the bills come in and we see if we've used less heating. However it's -4 C in the garden today, the sun is still on the side of the house and the inside of the double glazing at the back measure 8.7 C while the inside of the triple glazing at the front measure 14.5 C. Obviously we are loosing a lot more heat through the double glazed panel than through the single glazed panel.

Ice crystals visible on the outside of a triple glazed window when the temperature is -9 C outside. Photographed from the warmth inside.
There's also a very visible difference in that ice crystals form on the outside the triple glazed panel, proving the temperature there stays below freezing while we have a more liveable temperature inside the house. This never happens with our double glazed windows. In fact the closest thing that I have seen to this in the past was when we had ice all over the inside of the upstairs windows of our house before we replaced the single glazed panels there with double glazing. That wasn't comfortable at all !

Update February 2019 - it's working !
The front of our home, with the living room, is now fully triple glazed while the rear with the dining area (open to the living room) and kitchen remain double glazed. There's now an obvious difference in temperature between the front and the rear which I can also measure. Seeing this graph in February 2019 led me to make a simple calculation of consumption of gas for heating:

Source: Martien Visser.
I keep a spreadsheet of our monthly gas and electric consumption. We used less gas in January 2019 than any other January on record, even the somewhat colder 2017. Our gas consumption in January 2019 was 15% lower than the same month in 2016 when the temperature was very similar. A drop in gas consumption of 15% represents a greater than 15% drop in use of energy for heating because we also use gas for water heating and for cooking.

I only have one month of data so far so have to be cautious, but it appears that the replacement of the front windows with triple glazed panels has been effective. At this rate the windows will have paid for themselves in terms of nothing but a reduced heating bill within ten years even if there is no increase in the price of gas. That's a good rate of return and if it's possible I will replace the rear downstairs windows with triple glazing later this year.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Brexit: If the UK now remains in the EU how will it compensate EU citizens for their losses ?

EU27 leaders endorsing the Brexit withdrawal agreement
Last Sunday the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement was signed by both the UK and the EU27 states. It has been made clear by many EU leaders that there is precisely one withdrawal agreement and they have no intention of negotiating another in the four months left until the UK leaves the EU. That's it. There will be no more negotiation. This has been made clear.

The choice that the UK now faces is between the deal which Theresa May has already signed or no deal at all. The first of those will damage the British economy and to a lesser extent also EU economies, but it will go some way to protect the rights of British citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK. "No deal" will be catastrophic.

The EU has offered a remarkably generous withdrawal agreement. which was signed by the Prime Minister only to result in other British politicians and some elements of the press discussing it if they've been blackmailed. Whatever happened to the concept of diplomacy ? How do you intend to remain friends with the other EU nations and their citizens ?

In the few days since that time, the response from British people seems to have been that they will consider almost any other option other than the two choices which are now on the table. There are groups of people who want each of these options:
  • Re-open negotiations to get some other agreement from the EU though it's been made very clear that this will not happen.
  • Another referendum (a "people's vote"), which of course the British can do if they want but they should not expect that an internal vote will have influence outside their country.
  • A general election to try to bring in Jeremy Corbyn as a Labour Prime Minister, even though he has absolutely failed to oppose the government during his time as leader of the opposition.
  • Unilaterally reverse brexit and remain in the EU with the existing preferential terms of membership.
  • An arrangement similar to that which Norway has now.
  • No deal as deliberate policy while continuing to lie about the likely negative consequences for the country.
A few days later, at the Spectator awards. David Davis and Dominic Raab,
two brexit secretaries who quit without finishing the job, accept a joint
"Cabinet Resignation Of The Year" prize. They were fundamental in
causing chaos and they're smiling about it. No reflection here of the
damage they caused to other nations or even to their own.
What all of these options have in common is that the other 27 nations who are remaining in the EU are apparently supposed to blindly accept whatever it is that the British people decide to choose for themselves, whenever they choose it for themselves.

There's even a court case going on at the moment to decide whether or not the the UK can unilaterally reverse brexit and force that reversal on all the other member states. This is of course very unlikely to be allowed because it would open the EU to a type of extortion by member states.

At this point many British people, even many of those who see themselves as pro-EU "remainers" are still talking as if the UK is exceptional, can decide on any path for itself without considering the other nations, and can control the entire bloc even at a point in time where it's on the edge of leaving that bloc (or maybe they think they're not leaving as they haven't bothered to make up their minds as yet).

Brexit is not just about the UK
Quite apart from the absurdity of the idea that one nation which is leaving a bloc should expect to be able to change things for the 27 who are remaining, it seems to me that we have gone rather a long way past the time when British people ought to have worked out that the UK does not exist in a vacuum and that brexit has not happened in a vacuum either.

The effects of the brexit vote have not been limited to Britain or to British citizens. Much damage has been caused over the last two and a half years to citizens of the other 27 nations. The chaos from the UK has affected and will further affect everyone in the EU. Millions of people have lost billions of euros as a result of the UK's brexit vote and the subsequent uncertainty and chaos. Some people have lost their homes, their jobs, their businesses, a few even their lives, and very many people who never had a choice in this at all have lived with a considerable amount of stress for the last two and a half years.

Speaking for ourselves, our family was affected in a major way. We quickly realised that the only way we could ensure that we could remain living in our own homes, whatever the final outcome, would be by changing our nationality from British to Dutch. Not to have done this put us in harm's way if a brexit outcome which didn't protect our rights was the result. It was a difficult decision to make: Dual citizenship was not possible in our case so the votes of other British people resulted in us losing our right to live in our country of birth. The process of changing citizenship cost us several thousand euros and, in addition, a brexit related decline in our largely UK facing business (only UK sales dropped, not those to other markets) cost us tens of thousands of euros in lost sales. In addition we have experienced monumental stress due to having to take exams, provide evidence of citizenship (or lack of it), send important, expensive and sometimes irreplaceable documents through the post to provide evidence in the UK and the Netherlands. This stress lasted a long time: We started this process in June 2016 immediately after the referendum result but it took until just two weeks ago before we received our final letters from the Dutch government to say that our case was closed, we could definitely remain Dutch, and that we were therefore safe. But this has not been an easy time for our family. We, like millions of others, have been damaged by brexit.

A question for the remainers
I can't see how you can expect to turn back the clock without there being any negative effect. The UK has benefited enormously from the EU, it has benefited at the expense of other nations due to having been allowed special conditions which other nations did not benefit from. You have now caused great problems for the other nations and it's time for a bit of reflection and humility.

This leaves me with a question for those British people who now still think they can reverse article 50 and remain in the EU:


What plan does the UK have to reimburse for the losses that your country's actions have caused for EU27 citizens ?

Update 10 December 2018
The ECJ has ruled that the UK can unilaterally revoke article 50 and retain all the existing terms of membership "following a democratic process" which demonstrates that this is what the people want. We will now watch and see whether the UK takes advantage of this remarkably generous offer.

Note that it does not resolve anything for the millions of people who are still billions of euros down due to the brexit vote. It does not resolve anything for those who have lost homes, jobs or their nationality due to brexit.

Brexit was never an issue which only affected the UK and UK citizens. When will the UK offer compensation for the damage which the country has done to nationals of other countries ?

There's also the question of where this leaves the UK. If the UK withdraws the article 50 notice before it has taken on the reasons why British people voted to leave in the 2016 referendum then there is every chance that a Farage2 and a UKIP2 will continue to cause chaos and that there will continue to be people who cause chaos and who push for a brexit. If the issues are not resolved in the UK and the UK remains in the EU then that is bad news for every EU nation.

Update February 2019
The logo of an absolutely idiotic campaign
Just 50 days are left before the UK leave the EU on Brexit day, March 29th.

The British government still has not decided what it actually wants. It has proven to be incapable even of governing itself.

Against this background a new campaign has sprung up in the UK with the name "Lead not Leave". This campaign is led by Gina Miller, Lord Maurice Saatchi and Helena Kennedy QC and it was kicked off by Saatchi making a remarkably jingoistic speech in the British parliament, in which he harped back to the second world war, called for the vote of British people to be given more weight than the vote of other nations, and said:
We don't to be bossed around, particularly by the Germans - Lord Saatchi before launching Lead not Leave
I can assure the people behind "Lead not Leave" that that there is absolutely no yearning at all amongst the people of the other 27 nations of the EU for Britain to come along and "lead" them. The rest of the EU knows that it would not benefit from a country which is currently demonstrating an inability to tie its own shoelaces taking a leadership role. This, unfortunately, is the closest thing to an opposition to brexit that the UK has yet managed to organise, and it's not only far too late but also absolutely useless. Remain unicorns are not better than leave unicorns...

Anyway, I'm not linking to them. The last thing that either the EU or the UK need is for this group of nitwits to get more attention than they already have.

This is the last so far of a series of six blog posts about brexit:
Brexit: My country was taken from me (June 2016 + many later updates)
Brexit: There was plenty of information about what the EU did for UK  for those who sought it (October 2017)
Brexit: A long journey through uncertainty (October 2017)
Brexit: Where two years of brexit chaos have left us (February 2018)
Brexit: One year left for the UK to leave the EU and we're very nearly Dutch (March 2018)

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Fixing an ABB/Solar One Aurora Uno inverter with Int. Error E031

Our Power One Uno with the fatal "Error! Int. Error E031"
A couple of days ago our ABB/Power One Aurora Uno inverter stopped working. It starts up, clicks relays and display "Error! Int.Error   E031". Nothing more happens. It's six years old, so just out of the five year manufacturer's guarantee period. Not a good sign.

Searching on the internet suggests that this is a very common fault and people claim it's a faulty relay. However, no-one seemed to be offering advice on how to fit the fault.

I didn't want to replace the entire inverter. A repair is preferred because the whole reason to have a solar energy system is to conserve resources. Throwing out a huge device like this because of a minor fault goes completely against our reasoning for installing the product in the first place.

ABB offered absolutely no help at all. Their reply to me was useless even to the extent of not bothering to get my name right: their swiftly cut and pasted reply to say "we won't help at all" was addressed to someone called "Emmanuel".

The company which installed the inverter in the first place did offer a reasonable price for a replacement (from a different manufacturer and with a ten year guarantee) but that would cost us €1000 and of course it would still mean throwing out a mostly good existing unit. It turns out that the failed part is nothing more than a €5 relay on one of the printed circuit boards within the inverter.
Discolouration about the relay shows that it's failed.
The other side of the PCB has a crater in it from the pin on the relay melting/burning away.
Anyway, long story cut short, if you want to know how to repair one of these inverters click on the following line:


Hopefully the repair will be good for another five years. If I find myself buying a replacement inverter in a few years time, it won't be bought from ABB as their customer service is absolutely useless.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Six year solar power anniversary: We're still pleased with the system.

We've had 16 solar panels on the roof of our home for six years today. In total they've generated 20459 kWh of electricity. Our electricity meter reads 7022 kWh this morning, vs. 7814 kWh on the morning of the 5th of April 2012 when the panels were installed, indicating that we've generated 792 kWh more than we've used over the last six years. You can see this in the graph below. Note how the yellow line has tilted upwards over time:

Solar power 2012 - 2018. Blue bars show generation per month. Red bars show consumption per month. Yellow line shows difference between generation and consumption. Last year we overproduced 
For the first few years our consumption was closer to the total generation but a few things changed which made a fairly dramatic difference in consumption over the last two years:
This simple switch saves standby
current to computer and printer,
making a considerable saving.
  1. We work from home and as ours is a web-based business we use computers a lot. Newer second hand computers replaced the older Pentium 4 based machines a few years ago and they consume a lot less electricity when in use.
  2. When I measured the usage of our computers and laser printers I found that they consumed almost as much electricity in the many hours when they were switched off as they did in the smaller number of hours when we were using them. The printer was especially bad in this regard. To counter this problem I installed an inexpensive switch which completely disconnects our laser printer and computers from the mains power when they're not in use.
  3. Almost all the older compact fluorescent lightbulbs have now failed and been replaced by LED lightbulbs. This made almost no difference at all.
  4. Our children left home, which made a dramatic difference to our total energy consumption.
The Netherlands. Bicycles & windmills
are a stereotype. Sadly, some people are
protesting against wind power here.
The blue lines on the graph show the production of electricity on each month. You'll note that our production in winter is far less than our consumption. On the shortest day in December our solar panels produced just 0.2 kWh of electricity. The peak output for that day was 111 W. That's from an array that peaks above 3900 W on especially good summer days. Output in winter can be as low as 1/40th of that in summer. At night time, whether summer or winter, the output of solar panels is zero. This is why solar power really cannot be used for everything. It's important also to have other green sources of energy to balance the supply. In the Netherlands that really has to mean wind turbines, though sadly some people don't seem to understand why that is important and there have been protests against wind turbines.

Standby power
The switch which I use to disconnect the computers and laser printer from the mains electricity cost about €1 to buy and has saved €100s of euros so far. This was possible because the standby consumption of the computer and monitor power supplies and, even worse, the laser printer, were surprisingly high. They totalled over 20 W. Not all such attempts make the same difference. Unplugging the likes of mobile phone chargers is completely pointless because their consumption is measured in mW. Unless something gets warm it's not consuming any energy.

Have we been economically successful with solar power?
When we installed our solar power system I predicted that it would take about ten years to pay for itself. After six years it now looks like it will take a little longer than predicted but not dramatically so, or uneconomically so.

The price per kWh has varied over time but currently our supplier gives a value of 17 cents excluding tax, working out to about 20.5 cents per kWh including tax. That values the 19997 kWh of electricity that we consumed at about €4030. Our overproduction is valued at only 7 cents per kWh meaning that this was worth about €55. i.e. after six years we've "earnt" about €4080 from the system and we're about half way to paying back the cost of installation.

While we generate more electricity than we consume that
does not mean everything in our household runs on our solar
electricity. During the night and in winter we use energy from
the grid and most of that in the Netherlands comes from
fossil ful.
Rather than taking ten years to repay, it looks like it will actually take about 13. That's still quite good. It still easily beats putting the money in a bank account (especially with the low interest rates over the last few years). The panels are expected to last a minimum of 20 years producing their rated output so will continue to produce electricity well after they've been completely paid for.

If you're considering installing a system now you will do better than us because the costs have come down considerably. Installers are now claiming that the payback period can be as short as five years, which may be slightly optimistic but this is still likely to be one of the best investments anyone can make.

How long will the inverter last ?
A friend of ours had a nearly identical system installed at the same time as us and his inverter failed a month or so ago. Perhaps our inverter will fail similarly. We expected from the beginning that the inverter would be the weak point: it's a hard working piece of power electronics. Luckily, inverters have dramatically dropped in price. The cost of replacing the inverter is expected to be about a tenth of the total cost of our system, so it will extent the repayment time by about a year. If we have to do this it will be annoying but it will still be worthwhile.

What next for us ?
We have made considerable progress on insulating our home, bringing dramatic results for our gas consumption. We've considered the idea of stopping use of gas altogether, cutting not only the €50 per month that we pay for gas but also the €18 fixed charges for the connection. If we switched to an electrical heat pump to replace the gas boiler for central heating we could eliminate this cost. Because we would no longer require the chimneys on our roof we could then install a few more solar panels instead to produce about as much electricity as our total consumption.

Unfortunately this is currently impossible to justify because the repayment time works out as somewhat longer than the expected lifespan of a heat pump, let alone the other extra costs involved. For now we'll concentrate on continuing to make our home more energy efficient while waiting for a suitable more efficient non-gas heating system to become available.

Elsewhere in Assen: A small section of what was claimed to be (when it opened in 2016) the largest solar covered motor bike parking facility in the world - at the TT track.