Category Archives: Features

A home run for renewables

When Jane Seymour and her husband Jerry installed solar photovoltaic panels on the roof of their home in Sheffield 18 months ago, they virtually stopped using their tumble dryer, as they became aware that the old machine was guzzling more than half as much electricity as their four-kilowatt solar system could produce in a day.

An increasing number of people, like Jane, 54, a professor at the University of Nottingham, are investing in so-called microgeneration to try and combat rising energy bills and take advantage of schemes such as the government’s feed-in tariffs.

“Since I installed the panels, I walk around the house making sure appliances are switched off,” she says. “I think about how much I spent on the panels and try to make sure that we can use them efficiently. Then I think about the sheer cost of our energy bills, so if we can do anything to reduce them that’s really good.”

Solar power is just one of a range of emerging technologies expected to play a key role in changing the way homes and businesses think about consumer energy over the coming years.

Under government plans, each of the UK’s 27m homes and businesses will have a smart meter and display installed by the end of 2019, allowing energy suppliers to receive accurate consumption data to put an end to estimated billing.

The vision is for every home in the UK to be able to easily track how much energy it is consuming, carbon it is emitting and money it is spending, at any given moment through a two-way communication function on the meter.

According to a recent study by Oxford Economics, the mass roll out of smart meters will cost £11.5bn but save £25.4bn, leading to a net gain for the UK of nearly £14bn between now and 2030. For an average household on a dual fuel tariff, that could result in savings of £65.50 a year, based on a 5% reduction in energy usage, as they respond to using the meters.

Steve Cunningham, chief executive of smart meter company Landys+Gyr, admits that some habits die hard, so there will remain a handful of consumers that will be unable or refuse to change their consumption habits, even once they have identified energy guzzling appliances. But he also predicts that new automated smart technologies will help to negate the need for consumers to change at all.

The Nest Learning Thermostat in the US, for example, claims to be able to lower heating and cooling bills by up to 20%, using sensors to remember and then program itself to a household’s schedule, for example by switching off the heating when everyone is out. Alterations can even be controlled by a smartphone to fit in with busy lifestyles.

Competition among people is also expected to play a role in driving greater energy efficiency. In the US, Opower and the National Resource Defense Council have started using social media to tap into our competitive spirits. The Opower Facebook app allows users to compare their energy use with friends and family after connecting with utilities to pull in usage figures.

New technologies such as this are likely to cause concern about privacy, given that energy data could reveal your daily routine and what you are doing in your home.

Privacy concerns

However, the government maintains it is taking the issue seriously. For example, energy companies will be forced to get consent from homeowners if they want to collect data more than once a day.

Experts also believe smart meters will help to drive down prices by encouraging greater competition in the energy market. A single data communications company will be introduced to make it significantly easier for consumers to switch suppliers, while a new range of tariffs could be launched that encourage energy efficient behaviour.

Tony Cocker, chief executive of E.ON UK, predicted that utilities would be able to offer tariffs that enable customers to choose to take their electricity at different parts of the day, for example when it is cheapest and demand is low.

The company also predicts that smart meters could one day act as a central control unit in the home, recognising when the rooftop solar panels are generating and then flick the switch on the washing machine. They could also link up with electric cars, ensuring battery packs charge when demand is low, and feed power back into the grid if it knows the car was staying in the garage all day.

“Smart meters help our customers to understand their energy use and then reduce demand as best as they can,” he said. “We’ve already seen from trials that our customers with smart meters really do start to understand how they can reduce energy to make significant gains. They then need the education and encouragement to help them make changes.

This feature first appeared in a Guardian supplement sponsored by E.ON


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Faroe Islands reveal the secrets of successful ‘negawatts’

sund 1It is 1pm on a Thursday in mid-November and about 40 people have crowded into Sund PowerPlant’s small control room on the Faroe Islands.

They are waiting for Finn Jakobsen, manager of distribution and production at SEV, the utility that owns Sund, who has his finger poised over a button that will instantly switch off 10 per cent of the islands’ energy supply.

He looks confident that everything will be OK, but he has also told his audience more than once where the fire exit is, in case they need to make a quick escape. Thankfully, the emergency exits will remain unused.

Instead, when Jakobsen finally hits the switch, the meter of engine number two drops to zero, and the frequency display shows a momentary dip. But there is no blackout, no alarm bell, no drama.

Why? Because less than a second after the engine went down, SEV’s new IT system sent a signal to three industrial businesses on the other side of the island, which automatically cut their energy demand when he hit the switch, rebalancing the grid frequency and allowing the lights to stay on.

On the Danish mainland, DONG Energy has up to 30 seconds to respond to a drop in demand before a blackout, but on the Faroe Islands, SEV has less than a second to respond.

The IT system is known as Power Hub, a virtual power station designed by Danish utility DONG Energy under the European Union’s Twenties R&D programme, which aims to find ways of integrating rising levels of intermittent wind energy onto the grid.

The Faroe Islands, a remote archipelago that is officially part of Denmark, is the perfect location for testing some of these emerging technologies. The outpost is planning to significantly increase its reliance on wind power as a means of reducing hefty oil import bills, and at the same time it is keen to tackle the fairly frequent power blackouts that continue to afflict the islands.

DONG Energy maintains utilities can significantly reduce their costs through the use of virtual power stations, such as Power Hub, as instead of building costly new fossil-fuelled power plants for back up, they are able to reduce peak power demands in a controlled manner.

These so-called “demand response” or “negawatt” models are not a new concept, having been succesfully pioneered in the US. But DONG hopes that Power Hub will add a new degree of flexibility to existing smart grid systems, integrating a range of distributed energy sources including solar panels and electric vehicles, while still enabling the automated reduction in power demand at peak times that defines all “negawatt” schemes.

So far it seems like the concept is working well on the Faroe Islands.

From SEV’s point of view, the three businesses signed up to the scheme use 10 per cent of the energy on the island, so persuading them to link up to PowerHub and agree to curb their demand at key times is far simpler and less costly than trying to get every home to join the trials through the use of advanced smart appliances.

Moreover, it seems that all three businesses are happy to sign up – they see it as an opportunity rather than a burden.

All three companies are part of the fishing industry, and despite running different operations, they are all in the convenient position of being able to drastically reduce their energy demand at a moment’s notice without impeding their operations.

For example, Bergfrost Cold Storage boasts a storage tunnel drilled into a mountain at the harbour side, which means it can lose power for 24 hours without causing damage to its frozen foods.

Hiddenfjord Salmon Farm, by contrast, can only operate for up to 15 minutes without power loss harming its fish. After 15-30 minutes, three to four million fish would be lost, costing the company a minimum of 20 million DKK (£2.2m). But SEV knows the constraints and the company maintains 10-15 minutes of controlled outage is far better than the prospect of emergency blackouts that can last for hours.

With every millisecond counting after an outage, rapid response is vital. Once the Power Hub has balanced out the grid by automatically reducing power demand from the participating businesses, SEV then has 15 minutes of downtime to power up another generation source, such as the hydropower stations dotted around the archipelago.

Hiddenfjord also has its own back-up generator that it is hoping to link up to the virtual power plant so it can sell energy back to SEV in an emergency, creating yet more flexibility on the grid.

But while the IT systems for PowerHub may be in place, DONG says it is still exploring the best way to reward those companies that agree to take part. Should they receive payments in return for their participation, or is the reduced likelihood of emergency blackouts incentive enough?

Anders Birke, lead IT architect at DONG Energy, maintains that if payments were to be offered they would probably be lower than existing demand response schemes in other countries, simply because the industries are not sacrificing profits by taking part in the scheme.

While Power Hub might work for a small community with vast amounts of wind power, is it really  feasible for more complex power grids?

Peter Vinter, DONG Energy’s system architect with overall responsibility for Power Hub, insisted the system could be easily adapted to other island communities. But again, he said the trick is to find those businesses that can reduce their energy demand without disrupting their operations and undermining their profitability.

For example, companies in a hot holiday destination like the Canary Islands, might be able to reduce their air conditioning energy use for half an hour at a time, without frustrating employees or tourists too much.

“We’ve started by taking our own medicine,” added Vinter. “Right now we’re integrating our own climate air conditioning system at our headquarters in Denmark to see how long we can interrupt service without impairing the comfort in the office.

“But it’s a very unique experience every time you visit an island to find out what are the pain points there in terms of increasing renewables, finding out what assets are available and how flexible they are.”

This article first appeared in BusinessGreen

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How to become part of the ‘circular economy’

You might have seen the launch of Marks & Spencer’s shwopping initiative this year, in which Joanna Lumley, as the face of the campaign, encouraged customers to hand in unwanted garments when buying new clothes.

To date, it has collected 5,500 tonnes of old clothes, making a small inroad into the £25m worth of clothes sent to landfill in the UK every year.

Or you may have heard about HP’s green printing initiative, which partnered with Universal’s The Lorax movie to urge people to return empty printer cartridges so they can be recycled into new ones.

These are two of the higher profile examples of “closing the loop”, a concept that has been gaining traction in recent years and is set tobecome the focus of the government-backed Waste and Resources Action Programmes’ (WRAP) campaigning efforts.

In addition, politicians are increasingly keen to endorse the concept. New Resources Minister Lord de Mauley told BusinessGreen he was “very excited” about the idea of developing a “closed loop economy”, although he has so far refused to reveal how the model will inform new government policies.

There are real opportunities to be had from closing the loop. Research by consultancy McKinsey from earlier this year found European manufacturers could save $630bn a year by 2025 if they moved towards greater resource efficiency and reduced their reliance on increasingly rare and costly raw materials.

But not every firm has the resources to drive major new initiatives and promote them via high-profile celebrities. So how do small and medium-sized businesses identify ways of becoming more resource efficient?

This question is a particular concern for WRAP, which at its annual conference last week noted that while a growing number of blue-chip companies are designing waste out of their products, many smaller businesses are failing to get the message.

M&S’s head of sustainability, Mike Barry, predicts the shift to a circular economy is inevitable, and warns that those businesses that fail to embrace the concept will soon be “on their knees”.

If his predictions are right, then some smaller businesses could become victims of the resource crunch, with a downturn in sales and increasing costs squeezing profit margins.

One man’s treasure

Many businesses already take part in basic recycling schemes, but the key to developing a closed loop model lies in recognising waste as a resource and potential revenue stream.

“It might sound dull, but the first place to start is to understand your material flows,” Barry tells BusinessGreen. “It’s not until you understand what comes onto your premises and leaves it, what value it has when it arrives and leaves, that you can start to work out were you make a difference.”

Richard Swanell, director of design and waste prevention at WRAP, says companies should first look to reuse their waste internally. For example, by turning discarded plastic product packaging into recycled carrier bags.

If there’s no opportunity to reuse waste internally, then they can start to look outside to other businesses that may want it. London’s City Hall famously sells its used cooking oil from the canteen to its neighbour PricewaterhouseCoopers, which uses the old chip fat to power its biomass boiler.

Design out waste

Closed loop thinking also means preventing waste at the start of a product’s lifecycle as well as at the end. WRAP is particularly keen to encourage firms to design out waste, with a particular focus on the electronics industry.

“Think about how you can make your products more efficiently, with less waste and more cheaply,” advises Swannell.

“Ask if you can incorporate recycled content into them. And is there a need for lessons that could allow your business to grow significantly if you take advantage of that close loop thinking.”

WRAP maintains this closed loop design process can be easily applied to all types of projects, ranging from consumer goods to giant civil engineering programmes. However, it will typically require firms to work with suppliers, recyclers, and even competitors to get a grip on their entire supply chain.

“You’ve got to understand that you’re not going to do this alone,” says Barry. “Someone might be up in Manchester making ball bearings and don’t know what to do, but if they find another ball bearing maker from Burnley, they’ve cracked it.

“It doesn’t matter what we buyers say you should do, there will be another supplier who’s already got his hands dirty, so this peer-to-peer learning is very important.”

WRAP has a wealth of information on its website on how to develop closed loop models, and those in need of advice are invited to contact the organisation. They can provide help in drawing up a business plan to understand the potential benefits of becoming more waste efficient, as well as tips on how to develop a full-blown closed loop strategy.

Trade associations also often have dedicated sustainability managers who can offer tips for their specific industry, such as manufacturers’ organisation EEF, or not-for-profit body Julie’s Bicycle, which helps those in the arts and creative industries become more sustainable.

If your business has a bit more cash to spare, you could also hire a consultancy to help with advanced closed loop design initiatives.

And if you don’t, you could apply for a share of WRAP’s Waste Prevention Loan Fund that aims to support businesses and social enterprises as they attempt to increase re-use, repair, and recovery capacity, and adopt innovative business models to reduce the products and resources consumed.

New business models

WRAP maintains that alternative business models will play a key role in developing new business opportunities that extend product life, conserve resources, and prevent materials from becoming waste.

Many of these models, such as hire and leasing are not new, but could become increasingly common as businesses seek to become more efficient. This can be seen in the rise of city-based car clubs, which have been shown to help slash the number of cars on roads.

Spotify and Love Film also provide everyday examples of “dematerialised services” business models, selling on-demand music and film via internet or email, eliminating the need for a physical’ product or retail outlet.

M&S’s swop shop, and Tesco’s electrical trade-in offer, give an incentive such as cash or gift vouchers to customers returning unwanted items. Amazon’s trade-in service also allows users to send back books or video games in return for a gift voucher. The old product is then made available for resale on the site.

For M&S, the simple act of returning products at the end of their life, presents another opportunity for a sale, and helps boost customer loyalty. Such is his belief in the concept that Barry reckons businesses should think about creating “closed loop consumers” as well as waste streams.

He maintains that by thinking this way, businesses will increasingly start to think about the service they offer, as well as the product.

It is this kind of thinking that could enable local manufacturers to gain an edge on their overseas competitors. “If you get in a commoditised market place and just try to sell a plastic widget – some guy in China will sell the same thing at half the price,” he says.

“But if you can offer a service proposition that says I’ll rent it and come and fix it if it breaks down in the middle of the night, that takes a different mindset because suddenly your shifting to thinking about the customer first.

“To me there’s much more economic value in that service proposition rather than the physical stuff.”

According to Barry, it is this shift that could play a major role in protecting the UK’s competitiveness over the coming decades.

“By and large the UK won’t succeed on a grand or large scale in 10-20 years’ time if all it’s doing is knocking out widgets,” he warns. “We’ve got to think about this end-to-end service proposition.”

This feature first appeared in BusinessGreen 

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Winchester: bitten by the recession?

Winchester’s bustling High Street shows little sign of a global economic crisis, but scratch beneath the surface and it is easy to see the effects of the recession.

Winchester High Street by neilalderney123

Winchester High Street by neilalderney123

Winchester is one of the most affluent districts in the United Kingdom, with some of Hampshire’s most expensive houses. But the average Hampshire house price dropped nearly £30,000 in the two years from October 2007 to October 2009, according to Land Registry statistics.

Even so, the October 2009 price remained nearly £38,000 higher than the England and Wales average.

Winchester Goadsby estate agent Mark Thomas said: “House prices haven’t changed much here because it is an affluent area, so there isn’t a lot of borrowing.”

As for jobs, Winchester’s unemployment rate is 3.1 percent lower than the national 5.5 percent average, but workers are still feeling the bite of an economic crisis.

Nearly double the number of people claimed job seekers allowance in Winchester in October this year (1,250) compared to October 2008 (667), according to the Government’s residence-based unemployment rates.

Unemployment hit young people particularly hard. According to Government wider ILO figures in October, unemployment among under 25s in Winchester was disproportionately high at 30%.

Winchester Liberal Democrat Prospective MP, Martin Tod said youth are the worst affected when companies freeze recruitment.

Redundancies have also hit the area. Regional employer Twinings is threatening to shed more than 100 jobs at its Andover factory.

The upmarket tea company plans to move the majority of production to Poland and China to retain profitability, even though it claims “to have been at the heart of London for more than 300 years.”

BAE Systems also recently announced redundancies across the UK as a result of reduced workloads. The cull includes the loss of 111 jobs at the nearby BAE electronics facility in Farnborough.

Neither have white-collar workers escaped redundancy. Hampshire County Council recently threatened to axe up to 35 computer service jobs at its Winchester headquarters to save £1 million by merging IT services . The council has already shed eight senior manager posts.

Winchester Cathedral is a UK tourist attraction. The building has 7th century origins, the grave of novelist Jane Austen and was a location for the film adaptation of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

Yet it has also felt the bite. The Diocese of Winchester recently announced up to £1.5m budget cuts for 2010 because the recession affected people’s ability to give generously. It could mean the loss of a number of clergy posts across the county.

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Stonehenge: Summer solstice 2009

I went to Stonehenge this year to celebrate my 25th birthday at the solstice. Apparently there were 30,000 people there, although it didn’t seem like as many as that. 

Anyway, I took the opportunity to make a digital narrative of our adventure. I hope you enjoy it.


Vodpod videos no longer available.


more about “Stonehenge: Summer solstice 2009“, posted with vodpod


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Cardiff Day trips: Discover Wales at its finest

Spring has sprung, so let me take you on a tour of the best Cardiff has to offer and make the most of the fresh air and cheap activities

Spring finally seems to have arrived so now is the time to put away those winter clothes, come out from hibernation and step into the fresh air.

A recent National Trust survey found people are turning to less costly simple pleasures such as spending time in beautiful places to get them through the gloom of the recession.  So here is a tour of the best places to visit in and around Cardiff.
Start with Cardiff Castle, which is slap-bang in the middle of the city centre. Once a Roman fort, the site dates back to the end of the 50s AD, but the present building is relatively new.
The third Marquess of Bute and the architect William Burges transformed it in 1866 into a Welsh Victorian Camelot with themed rooms, including Mediterranean gardens and Italian and Arabian decoration.
It costs nothing to wander the grounds with its resident peacocks and climb the Norman keep, but a ticket to go inside is £8.95 for an adult and £6.35 for children.
Call 029 2087 8100 or email for more details.

Walking or cycling the Taff Trail is a more active way to spend the day and it is totally free. It stretches from Cardiff Bay to Brecon, so there are a choice of places to start.
A short walk from Cardiff Castle is Bute Park. From there, go north along the river, coming out at Hailey Park. Don’t forget to take a pair of binoculars because herons, swans and even cormorants are often on the river.
Continue past Llandaff Rowing club to Tongwynlais and onto Taffs Well for a vista of Castell Coch.  Check out the Cycle the Taff Trail website at for more routes and cycling tips.

Cardiff Castle

The Norman keep at Cardiff Castle

The third Marquess of Bute was the richest man in the world and once he had finished transforming Cardiff Castle, his next project was Castell Coch, also known as the fairy tale castle.

Set in hills, it has a moat and the rooms are elaborately decorated with paintings of Aesop’s fables. It can be reached by bike on the Taff Trail or by car on the A470. Entry is £3.60 for an adult and £3.20 for a concession.

A more peaceful walk is to the top of Gwaelod-y-Garth, a mountain which looks down on Cardiff, Methyr Tydfil and even Weston Super-Mare on a clear day. It was thought to be the inspiration for the film An English Man Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain, starring Hugh Grant. After a long days’ walk, pop into The Gwaelod Y Garth Inn, which has an excellent menu and some good ales.
Pentyrch and Taffs Well sit either side of the mountain, so it is a good idea to plan a route from one village to the other, unless you like walking in circles.

A more demanding day out can be spent at Adventure Cardiff, based at Channel View centre. It offers a host of watersports for all ages and abilities including sailing, canoeing, sea kayaking and even windsurfing in a 500-acre freshwater lake . A one-day course costs £55 and it caters for school trips too. Call 029 2035 3912 for more details or go to

Golfing requires skill more than stamina and can be played in clubs across Cardiff. The Vale Hotel Golf and Spa Resort, off junction 34 of the M4 is particularly worth visiting as it is home of the Welsh Professional Golfers Association and boasts two championship golf courses.
The Sunday Driver Golf Break, which includes one night accommodation, meals, use of the golf course and lesuire facilities, is on offer from £90. Call 01443 667800 or visit

Long before Barry became Gavin-and-Stacey-land, it was famous for  Barry Island’s beach and pleasure park. It is worth a family visit, and on a warm day expect it to be packed with people relaxing on the sands, sitting in cafes or riding the log flume and pirate ship. It is only an inexpensive 20-minute train ride or bus journey away.

There are plenty of choices for a day out and they are the perfect way to relax and have a good time, so let’s hope Cardiff will have a spring awakening after the cold winter.

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Restaurant review: Diner 77

This year, Diner 77 celebrates its thirtieth birthday and while its classic American fare might not take the diner to another level of gastronomic delight, its chefs certainly cook up a darn good meal.

The single dining room smelt like a school cafeteria. Thirty years of chips have been cooked in this joint and despite a new lick of paint, there was an old-fashioned ambience. But now, in a time of frugality, when eating in is apparently the new eating out, I was surprised the waitress turned us away on a Tuesday evening because it was full to the rafters.
Nevertheless, 15 minutes later, I was seated and perusing its vast menu.


The burger itself was not as thick as some of the ones served in Diner 77’s gourmet rivals, but it sure tasted like beef and in true USA style, there was just a bit too much of everything.
Darn it, the barbecue burger was nearly drowned in sauce and the Mexican had beef chilli, guacamole and sour cream piled high.

The tuna steak, which was supposed to come in ciabatta bread, arrived in a toasted burger bun with no apology, but the tuna was well cooked and the waitress accommodated the demands of one fussy customer who didn’t want Cajun spices.


I won’t deny I was out to prove this classic diner was 10 times better than some of its UK-chain gourmet rivals, so was pleasantly surprised when it proved better value for money.

Deserts are normally the speciality of American diners, and when I ordered pancakes I expected a tall and tasty stack. But the pancakes  seemed to be shop-bought and reheated. Similarly disappointing, the ice cream was bland and they did not have the listed bubblegum flavour. But it is difficult not to enjoy eating in a restaurant with staff as genuine as in Diner 77.  I felt at ease to  pig out in stereotypical USA style.

Diner 77
Pontcanna Street, Cardiff
029 20344628

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