Saturday 6 April 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 5 April 2013

Why I am no longer on Facebook

Between 2007 and yesterday I had an account on Facebook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update 2016 - Facebook destroys democracy
We've now seen the effect of fake news items on democracy. After Brexit, now Trump as US president. In both cases, voters were being informed by false news spread on social media sites, of which Facebook was the largest.

Amongst the winners were a group of unscrupulous Macedonian teenagers who had no real interest in the US election but who found that they could make €10000 per month through online advertising by inventing click-bait fake news articles which would be spread via Facebook. They found that appealing to the worst excesses of the right wing was the best way of generating clicks.

News items about the post-truth world of fake news over the last few days are summarised quite well by this video:

Update December 2017
Two ex-Facebook executives have recently come out with criticisms of Facebook. Chamath Palihapitiya wrote about how Facebook is destroying how society works.

Meanwhile, the disaster of Trump and Brexit, both enabled by Facebook (which even helped the Russians to swing elections in their favour) continue. Brexit's effect on British people living in the EU is especially personal to us as it threatens our right to live in our own home.

Update March 2018
Further evidence has come to light of how Facebook combined with Cambridge Analytica (and probably others) have conspired to undermine democracy. There is only one link that you now need for Facebook and it's this one which deletes your account.

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