Thursday, May 04, 2017

How Smart is your Meter?

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This is the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 5 May. The badges have arrived and will be in the post to all my patrons this week. In fact, you should have received them by the time you hear this. Since they have only just arrived I’ve extended the special offer until the end of May. That means that Foundation Supporters signing up this month will also get a badge. Go to

Welcome to Imogen Littlejohns, my first Gold Patron. 

In addition to this shout-out and the sustainable futures badge, I'll give priority to Imogen's suggestions for topics to cover in future reports. We’ll also be setting up an online discussion with me, Imogen and other Gold Patrons. That will be on Skype or similar, and will take place every month with the first in the second half of May.

Thanks, Imogen, for your support. And thanks, too, to all my other patrons, especially those in Denmark.

In this week's report: 
Can you get a discount if you take your own cup to a coffeeshop? Are batteries the investment of the future? I'll tell you about my smart meter, about electric cars in India and about the implications of tellurium supplies for solar panels. The RHS comments on the effect of climate change on gardens. Will we soon been drinking GM tea? The court has ruled against the government once more on air pollution, the Marine Conservation Society issues a plastic challenge and plastic waste could be coming to a road near you. President Trump will shortly set out his climate policy. 

All this and not a word about the British parliamentary election.

Links on the blog at

Starships go!
First, Prof Stephen Hawking challenges the world to colonise distant planets within the next hundred years if it wants to survive. He foresees threats from nuclear war, genetically engineered viruses and global warming as well as from asteroid strikes and overpopulation. It’s easy to dismiss this as hype for his new television series with the BBC, but I for one will be watching to see the case that he makes for all this. Of course if we’re leaving this planet because we’ve trashed it, what guarantee is there that we’ll take care of a new one? And who will be allowed to go? No doubt the meek will inherit the Earth while the wealthy jet off to another world. I’m afraid I can see people even now saying, “Oh well, we’ve got 100 years. What’s the problem?” The problem is that humanity normally only reacts to immediate threats, and by the time the threat of planetary disaster becomes immediate it will be far too late to do anything.

And now, having cheered you all up, let’s come back to Earth. Have a cup of coffee. 

Coffee Cups 
Oh dear. An estimated 2.5 billion paper coffee cups are thrown away in Britain each year, most of which are not recycled. Now Pret-a-Manger and Paul are offering discounts to customers who bring their own cups, although a Virgin Trains passenger was recently banned from using his own mug when he ordered a coffee. A steward told him that using his own reusable cup was a health and safety issue. Starbucks and Costa give a cash discount, and Caffe Nero gives customers double reward card stamps. Starbucks started with a 50p discount last year but have pulled it back to 25p, although they also sell a re-usable cup for £1. Still only about one in 400 cups is recycled, partly because these cups include a plastic membrane which makes them difficult to process. Nescafe has had bad press for its Azera ‘coffee to go’ range. It’s come under fire from customers and been dropped by the supermarket chain Morrisons. It uses the same cups as the major coffee shop chains, which include a plastic coating that means they cannot be recycled along with paper waste. Company insiders have now revealed that Nestle plans trials on cups that can be recycled, either as paper or as plastic. Nescafe said it was ‘determined to find a solution’ to the cup recycling problem. What about a container that you can re-use?

Road to Recycling
Still on plastic, tennis star Sir Andy Murray has recently invested in MacRebur, Virgin Media Business Voom Start-up Award Winner 2016. Their product is MR6. It uses waste plastic for surfacing roads. According to their website, “MR6 is a conglomeration of carefully selected polymers, specifically designed to improve the strength and durability of asphalt whilst reducing the quantity of bitumen required in the mix. It is made from 100% waste materials and can be used in the making of hot and warm mix asphalts. MR6 is a truly unique way of enhancing asphalt to give a cost effective and longer lasting asphalt solution.”

If waste plastic can be used in this way it reduces the need for other raw materials and reduces what is sent to landfill. That’s a win-win.

The Plastic Challenge
The Marine Conservation Society’s (MCS) Plastic Challenge runs for the whole of June. Individuals and school groups and probably businesses as well are challenged to avoid single-use plastics throughout the month. That means no plastic cups, plastic bags, bubble-packed goods like batteries or chocolates in plastic trays. How will we bring home fruit and veg from the supermarket - pre-packaged meat or ready meals? My copy of Private Eye magazine comes in a plastic wrapper and so does The Environmentalist magazine. I get three or four other publications like that each month as well, and have you noticed how much junk mail comes in plastic now? It’s going to be a hard challenge. Are you up for it? 

If you join the MCS today your welcome pack includes a reusable KeepCup for your coffee ( ) and a Fill&Go Active water bottle from Brita which incorporates a filter. 

How Smart is your Meter?
Have you seen those television commercials urging you to get a smart meter so that you can get your electricity and gas consumption under control? We thought we ought to do this so we asked our energy company to send someone round. I'll tell you what happened in a minute.

The UK government’s plan, now looking increasingly ambitious, is that by the end of 2020 around 53m smart meters will be fitted in more than 30m homes and businesses. The predicted cost is around £200 for each meter replaced – ie, more than £400 for many households – a sum borne by consumers through increased bills. Total cost £11bn. 

Once installed, an energy supplier can read a meter remotely via the mobile phone network. Householders also receive a digital display that shows exactly how much power they are consuming – and its cost – in real time. The idea is that, when faced with their consumption, consumers will be more likely to switch off lights or electrical items that are on standby, or to adopt energy-saving measures. As a result they will be nudged into cutting their overall consumption – though early figures show cuts are surprisingly low. Reductions are as little as 3%, a figure similar to the experience in the US.

Some doubts have been raised about the smart meter programme. For example, since the whole thing operates on a wireless network there could be a risk that they could be hacked. Some people are worried that the meters will not be accurate and in fact false readings may have affected 750,000 + households in the Netherlands. In the UK there is a problem with switching suppliers or just with switching tariffs. This is beyond the capability of first generation - SMET1 - meters. If the user changes suppliers the smart function is lost and the meter has to be read manually as before. Second generation SMET2 meters will handle this, and are beginning to be rolled out. Will the 3m SMET1s already installed have to be replaced? SMET2 meters allow consumers to change tariff hour by hour, so at times of peak demand and high cost they can turn off the oven and the tumble drier and so on. When there’s a surplus of energy, when it’s very windy or sunny for example, they can choose cheap energy for their major usage. All this depends of course on the consumer being present, reading the meter and making a decision to switch on or off. The next stage must surely be to integrate the smart meter with smart appliances. Freezers can be turned off for several hours without a problem, but if they could be turned off for only five or 10 minutes at times of peak demand the effect of this on a national scale would smooth consumption making the grid easier to manage and minimising the use of standby power stations. An interactive smart meter which could communicate with freezers, ovens, washing machines and other heavy users of electricity could achieve this demand management automatically. As far as I know this is beyond the capability of SMET2. Is there a SMET3 on the horizon? Will all the other meters have to be replaced? And will this cost another £11 billion or significantly more?

Oh, and what happened to our smart meter? Well, a very nice man came and took out the electricity meter and put in a smart electricity meter. This communicates with a smart gas meter wirelessly and the data is sent back to the energy company for billing. When our installer got to the gas meter, and fortunately before he'd actually plumbed it in, he pressed the button on it to communicate with the electricity meter and communication failed. He was surprised because he said he had completed successful installations where the two meters were much further apart than ours but he just couldn't make it work. He took the new smart meter out and put back a traditional mater. When I read it today I found that it is counting up from zero so I hope he took a note of the reading of the one that he took out! He said that some research was going on into improving the HAN, the home area network, and there might be something which would work in our house later in the year. We should ring again in September. For the moment our meters are as dumb as anybody else's.

Man the Batteries!
Batteries continue to make news. Electricity storage, whether in batteries or by other means is crucial to the success of renewables by smoothing out the intermittent supply. Investment advisors are recommending that clients should put their money in batteries as demand is bound to increase. For example, India announced this week that it was moving to electric cars with the objective of banning the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles altogether by 2030. This will lower the cost of importing fuel and lower costs for running vehicles, as well as addressing the 2.3m annual fatalities caused by bad air quality. Given that some 50% of a Tesla car is accounted for by the cost of the batteries, the value of the market will be enormous. Of course it’s a global market; India is by no means alone in planning an electric future. 

Investing in batteries is a gamble, nevertheless. The imperative is to balance cost against bulk and power capacity. Researchers are examining a range of different materials to improve on the batteries we already have. The winners will be those that back the right technology.

Remember, energy storage is not just about batteries. Pump storage schemes and flywheels can be used to store surplus electricity and regenerate it when required. The gravity train which I mentioned a while ago does much the same thing by powering up a gradient and generating electricity as it coasts down. The Drake Landing Solar Community which I’ve also reported on doesn’t involve electricity at all. Its solar panels heat water which transfers the heat to an underground store, through pipes in boreholes into the earth. The core temperature is currently 52℃, and the store typically provides some 98% of the space heating required by the community’s 52 homes throughout the Canadian winter. 

Philosopher’s Stone?
Electricity is everywhere and needed by everyone. If we’re not going to generate it with fossil fuels the main alternatives are wind and solar power. Cadmium-telluride is one of the second generation thin-film solar cell technologies. It’s far better at absorbing light than silicon, so its absorbing layer can be thinner. Like many materials needed for renewable energy and electric technologies, tellurium is a rare mineral according to the BBC. Now the BBC reports there's an undersea mountain 300 miles off the Canaries in the Atlantic  that contains prodigious amounts of tellurium. The dilemma therefore, is whether to leave it there or to risk serious environmental damage from undersea mining. Jon Major of Liverpool University, writing in Eco Business, comes to the conclusion that we have no choice but to mine. 

However, Tim Worstall writing in Forbes Magazine, claims that the significance of the find is exaggerated. He says there’s no current shortage of tellurium, it’s a common by-product of refining copper and at around $30 - $50 per kilo it’s not really expensive. He says it’s not a rare earth metal as the BBC suggests, nor is it used in wind turbines as it reports. I recommend you read Worstall’s article because he appears to demolish the argument and takes apart the economic analysis most skilfully. Read them both and make up your own mind. Links at

Gardening in a Changing Climate 
…is the title of a new report from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS)

Since the 2002 publication of the RHS report looking at the impact of climate change on gardening, Gardening in a Global Greenhouse, the global climate has undergone dramatic change, with 2016 proving to be the warmest year on record. 

Today, confidence in global climate models has increased and we now know that extreme weather events are the most likely conditions to be experienced by the UK. The impact of these events, such as flash flooding and periods of drought, is likely to be compounded by increased housing pressure, meaning that gardens will become more critical in providing services formerly delivered by the natural environment – services such as flood alleviation, carbon sequestration and the provision of habitats for wildlife – that will be lost to development.

The report describes how each region of the UK will be affected by the changing climate. Read it at: 

Moving from gardens to horticulture, the production of the world’s favourite drink, yes that’s tea, is under pressure. In China there’s a shortage of labour to pick the tea. In Sri Lanka bad weather has seriously affected the crop and lack of investment has not helped. Many of the bushes are over 80 years old, but small farmers don’t want to replace them because it takes four years for a new bush to start producing harvestable leaves. Another problem is the lack of an acceptable herbicide to keep the tea plants free of weeds. Chemicals used in some parts of China mean that tea from those tea gardens is banned from export to the EU and other countries. 
Scientists are already sequencing the genome of tea, so GM tea - and coffee - could be not far off. That’s a debate for another day.

And across the pond…
Climate Change is of course something that doesn’t happen in the United States. The Los Angeles Times reports that 
“Climate Change” has been removed from the menu of “Environmental Topics” accessible from the EPA’s home page. The website page for “climate change impacts” now displays a message stating the page is “being updated,” as does a link to the “main EPA climate change website.” “Thank you for your interest in this topic,” it says. “We are currently updating our website to reflect EPA's priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt.” 

…reports that “climate action also deserves attention from those evaluating the administration’s nascent foreign policy. On April 29 — the 100th day of the administration — approximately 200,000 people in Washington, D.C. (and tens of thousands more in other cities) marched to put pressure on the Trump White House to get serious about climate change. But they were also marching, in part, about foreign policy.”

It goes on, “The Trump administration’s approach to science generally and to climate change in particular has the makings of a foreign-policy disaster. Environmental policy is one of the areas where domestic and foreign policy converge — not just because the policies we institute at home have direct impact on citizens of other countries, in addition to our own present and future economy and health. And not just because the Pentagon — including Secretary of Defense James Mattis — regards climate change as a security threat. It’s also because climate change is an example, par excellence, of an international collective-action problem that can only be effectively addressed through multinational and, likely, multilateral cooperation. And when U.S. credibility to lead the world in solving problems that demand cooperation — and cannot be solved by the kind of episodic transactions (or deal-making) that Trump fancies himself good at — is damaged, America loses.”

According to the Washington Post, “Foes of the Paris climate agreement have gained the upper hand in the ongoing White House debate over whether the U.S. should pull out of the historic pact, according to participants in the discussions and those briefed on the deliberations, although President Trump has yet to make a final decision.”

But, “President Donald Trump may pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement on climate change as early as next week, sources with knowledge of the plans told HuffPost on Tuesday.”

Watch this space!

And finally…

You’ll remember that just after last week's report the High Court was due to rule on whether the government had to publish its clean air strategy or whether it could hold it back until after the election. We now know that the court ruled that it should be published immediately, or at least immediately after the local elections taking place in the UK on Thursday, 3 May. So in next Friday's report we may learn what measures the government intends to take. Diesel scrappage to encourage consumers to give up old and dirty diesel cars? More toxicity charges to penalise cars driving into urban centres? We'll just have to wait and see.

That's it for another week. 
I'm Anthony Day.  That was the Sustainable Futures Report and thank you for listening, wherever in the world you are. 

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And that really is it. Enjoy your weekend.
Bye for now.