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The 10 big energy myths

Chris Goodall


Myth 1: solar power is too expensive to be of much use

In
reality, today’s bulky and expensive solar panels capture only 10% or
so of the sun’s energy, but rapid innovation in the US means that the
next generation of panels will be much thinner, capture far more of the
energy in the sun’s light and cost a fraction of what they do today.
They may not even be made of silicon. First Solar, the largest
manufacturer of thin panels, claims that its products will generate
electricity in sunny countries as cheaply as large power stations by
2012.

Other companies are investigating even more efficient
ways of capturing the sun’s energy, for example the use of long
parabolic mirrors to focus light on to a thin tube carrying a liquid,
which gets hot enough to drive a steam turbine and generate
electricity. Spanish and German companies are installing large-scale
solar power plants of this type in North Africa, Spain and the
south-west of America; on hot summer afternoons in California, solar
power stations are probably already financially competitive with coal.
Europe, meanwhile, could get most of its electricity from plants in the
Sahara desert. We would need new long-distance power transmission but
the technology for providing this is advancing fast, and the countries
of North Africa would get a valuable new source of income.

Myth 2: wind power is too unreliable

Actually,
during some periods earlier this year the wind provided almost 40% of
Spanish power. Parts of northern Germany generate more electricity from
wind than they actually need. Northern Scotland, blessed with some of
the best wind speeds in Europe, could easily generate 10% or even 15%
of the UK’s electricity needs at a cost that would comfortably match
today’s fossil fuel prices.

The intermittency of wind power does
mean that we would need to run our electricity grids in a very
different way. To provide the most reliable electricity, Europe needs
to build better connections between regions and countries; those
generating a surplus of wind energy should be able to export it easily
to places where the air is still. The UK must invest in transmission
cables, probably offshore, that bring Scottish wind-generated
electricity to the power-hungry south-east and then continue on to
Holland and France. The electricity distribution system must be
Europe-wide if we are to get the maximum security of supply.

We will also need to invest in energy storage. At the moment we do this by
pumping
water uphill at times of surplus and letting it flow back down the
mountain when power is scarce. Other countries are talking of
developing “smart grids” that provide users with incentives to consume
less electricity when wind speeds are low. Wind power is financially
viable today in many countries, and it will become cheaper as turbines
continue to grow in size, and manufacturers drive down costs. Some
projections see more than 30% of the world’s electricity eventually
coming from the wind. Turbine manufacture and installation are also set
to become major sources of employment, with one trade body predicting
that the sector will generate 2m jobs worldwide by 2020.

Myth 3: marine energy is a dead-end

The
thin channel of water between the north-east tip of Scotland and Orkney
contains some of the most concentrated tidal power in the world. The
energy from the peak flows may well be greater than the electricity
needs of London. Similarly, the waves off the Atlantic coasts of Spain
and Portugal are strong, consistent and able to provide a substantial
fraction of the region’s power. Designing and building machines that
can survive the harsh conditions of fast-flowing ocean waters has been
challenging and the past decades have seen repeated disappointments
here and abroad. This year we have seen the installation of the first
tidal turbine to be successfully connected to the UK electricity grid
in Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland, and the first group of
large-scale wave power generators 5km off the coast of Portugal,
constructed by a Scottish company.

But even though the UK shares
with Canada, South Africa and parts of South America some of the best
marine energy resources in the world, financial support has been
trifling. The London opera houses have had more taxpayer money than the
British marine power industry over the past few years. Danish support
for wind power helped that country establish worldwide leadership in
the building of turbines; the UK could do the same with wave and tidal
power.

Myth 4: nuclear power is cheaper than other low-carbon sources of electricity

If
we believe that the world energy and environmental crises are as severe
as is said, nuclear power stations must be considered as a possible
option. But although the disposal of waste and the proliferation of
nuclear weapons are profoundly important issues, the most severe
problem may be the high and unpredictable cost of nuclear plants.

The
new nuclear power station on the island of Olkiluoto in western Finland
is a clear example. Electricity production was originally supposed to
start this year, but the latest news is that the power station will not
start generating until 2012. The impact on the cost of the project has
been dramatic. When the contracts were signed, the plant was supposed
to cost €3bn (£2.5bn). The final cost is likely to be more
than twice this figure and the construction process is fast turning
into a nightmare. A second new plant in Normandy appears to be
experiencing similar problems. In the US, power companies are backing
away from nuclear because of fears over uncontrollable costs.

Unless
we can find a new way to build nuclear power stations, it looks as
though CO2 capture at coal-fired plants will be a cheaper way of
producing low-carbon electricity. A sustained research effort around
the world might also mean that cost-effective carbon capture is
available before the next generation of nuclear plants is ready, and
that it will be possible to fit carbon-capture equipment on existing
coal-fired power stations. Finding a way to roll out CO2 capture is the
single most important research challenge the world faces today. The
current leader, the Swedish power company Vattenfall, is using an
innovative technology that burns the coal in pure oxygen rather than
air, producing pure carbon dioxide from its chimneys, rather than
expensively separating the CO2 from other exhaust gases. It hopes to be
operating huge coal-fired power stations with minimal CO2 emissions by
2020.

Myth 5: electric cars are slow and ugly

We
tend to think that electric cars are all like the G Wiz vehicle, with a
limited range, poor acceleration and an unprepossessing appearance.
Actually, we are already very close to developing electric cars that
match the performance of petrol vehicles. The Tesla electric sports
car, sold in America but designed by Lotus in Norfolk, amazes all those
who experience its awesome acceleration. With a price tag of more than
$100,000, late 2008 probably wasn’t a good time to launch a luxury
electric car, but the Tesla has demonstrated to everybody that electric
cars can be exciting and desirable. The crucial advance in electric car
technology has been in batteries: the latest lithium batteries –
similar to the ones in your laptop – can provide large amounts of power
for acceleration and a long enough range for almost all journeys.

Batteries
still need to become cheaper and quicker to charge, but the UK’s
largest manufacturer of electric vehicles says that advances are
happening faster than ever before. Its urban delivery van has a range
of over 100 miles, accelerates to 70mph and has running costs of just
over 1p per mile. The cost of the diesel equivalent is probably 20
times as much. Denmark and Israel have committed to develop the full
infrastructure for a switch to an all-electric car fleet. Danish cars
will be powered by the spare electricity from the copious resources of
wind power; the Israelis will provide solar power harvested from the
desert.

Myth 6: biofuels are always destructive to the environment

Making
some of our motor fuel from food has been an almost unmitigated
disaster. It has caused hunger and increased the rate of forest loss,
as farmers have sought extra land on which to grow their crops. However
the failure of the first generation of biofuels should not mean that we
should reject the use of biological materials forever. Within a few
years we will be able to turn agricultural wastes into liquid fuels by
splitting cellulose, the most abundant molecule in plants and trees,
into simple hydrocarbons. Chemists have struggled to find a way of
breaking down this tough compound cheaply, but huge amounts of new
capital have flowed into US companies that are working on making a
petrol substitute from low-value agricultural wastes. In the lead is
Range Fuels, a business funded by the venture capitalist Vinod Khosla,
which is now building its first commercial cellulose cracking plant in
Georgia using waste wood from managed forests as its feedstock.

We
shouldn’t be under any illusion that making petrol from cellulose is a
solution to all the problems of the first generation of biofuels.
Although cellulose is abundant, our voracious needs for liquid fuel
mean we will have to devote a significant fraction of the world’s land
to growing the grasses and wood we need for cellulose refineries.
Managing cellulose production so that it doesn’t reduce the amount of
food produced is one of the most important issues we face.

Myth 7: climate change means we need more organic agriculture

The
uncomfortable reality is that we already struggle to feed six billion
people. Population numbers will rise to more than nine billion by 2050.
Although food production is increasing slowly, the growth rate in
agricultural productivity is likely to decline below population
increases within a few years. The richer half of the world’s population
will also be eating more meat. Since animals need large amounts of land
for every unit of meat they produce, this further threatens food
production for the poor. So we need to ensure that as much food as
possible is produced on the limited resources of good farmland. Most
studies show that yields under organic cultivation are little more than
half what can be achieved elsewhere. Unless this figure can be hugely
improved, the implication is clear: the world cannot feed its people
and produce huge amounts of cellulose for fuels if large acreages are
converted to organic cultivation.

Myth 8: zero carbon homes are the best way of dealing with greenhouse gas emissions from buildings

Buildings
are responsible for about half the world’s emissions; domestic housing
is the most important single source of greenhouse gases. The UK’s
insistence that all new homes are “zero carbon” by 2016 sounds like a
good idea, but there are two problems. In most countries, only about 1%
of the housing stock is newly built each year. Tighter building
regulations have no effect on the remaining 99%. Second, making a
building genuinely zero carbon is extremely expensive. The few
prototype UK homes that have recently reached this standard have cost
twice as much as conventional houses.

Just focusing on new homes
and demanding that housebuilders meet extremely high targets is not the
right way to cut emissions. Instead, we should take a lesson from
Germany. A mixture of subsidies, cheap loans and exhortation is
succeeding in getting hundreds of thousands of older properties
eco-renovated each year to very impressive standards and at reasonable
cost. German renovators are learning lessons from the PassivHaus
movement, which has focused not on reducing carbon emissions to zero,
but on using painstaking methods to cut emissions to 10 or 20% of
conventional levels, at a manageable cost, in both renovations and new
homes. The PassivHaus pioneers have focused on improving insulation,
providing far better air-tightness and warming incoming air in winter,
with the hotter stale air extracted from the house. Careful attention
to detail in both design and building work has produced unexpectedly
large cuts in total energy use. The small extra price paid by
householders is easily outweighed by the savings in electricity and
gas. Rather than demanding totally carbon-neutral housing, the UK
should push a massive programme of eco-renovation and cost-effective
techniques for new construction.

Myth 9: the most efficient power stations are big

Large,
modern gas-fired power stations can turn about 60% of the energy in
fuel into electricity. The rest is lost as waste heat.

Even
though 5-10% of the electricity will be lost in transmission to the
user, efficiency has still been far better than small-scale local
generation of power. This is changing fast.

New types of tiny
combined heat and power plants are able to turn about half the energy
in fuel into electricity, almost matching the efficiency of huge
generators. These are now small enough to be easily installed in
ordinary homes. Not only will they generate electricity but the surplus
heat can be used to heat the house, meaning that all the energy in gas
is productively used. Some types of air conditioning can even use the
heat to power their chillers in summer.

We think that
microgeneration means wind turbines or solar panels on the roof, but
efficient combined heat and power plants are a far better prospect for
the UK and elsewhere. Within a few years, we will see these small power
plants, perhaps using cellulose-based renewable fuels and not just gas,
in many buildings. Korea is leading the way by heavily subsidising the
early installation of fuel cells at office buildings and other large
electricity users.

Myth 10: all proposed solutions to climate change need to be hi-tech

The
advanced economies are obsessed with finding hi-tech solutions to
reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Many of these are expensive and may
create as many problems as they solve. Nuclear power is a good example.
But it may be cheaper and more effective to look for simple solutions
that reduce emissions, or even extract existing carbon dioxide from the
air. There are many viable proposals to do this cheaply around the
world, which also often help feed the world’s poorest people. One
outstanding example is to use a substance known as biochar to sequester
carbon and increase food yields at the same time.

Biochar is an
astonishing idea. Burning agricultural wastes in the absence of air
leaves a charcoal composed of almost pure carbon, which can then be
crushed and dug into the soil. Biochar is extremely stable and the
carbon will stay in the soil unchanged for hundreds of years. The
original agricultural wastes had captured CO2 from the air through the
photosynthesis process; biochar is a low-tech way of sequestering
carbon, effectively for ever. As importantly, biochar improves
fertility in a wide variety of tropical soils. Beneficial
micro-organisms seem to crowd into the pores of the small pieces of
crushed charcoal. A network of practical engineers around the tropical
world is developing the simple stoves needed to make the charcoal. A
few million dollars of support would allow their research to benefit
hundreds of millions of small farmers at the same time as extracting
large quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere.

• Chris Goodall’s new book, Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, is published by Profile books, priced £9.99.

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Know Your Site

By Paul Boag

A good starting point for planning the future of your website is to
analyze what you already have. To some extent we are doing this all the
time. That is how new projects happen. However, a more formal approach
helps to better inform your decision-making throughout the web project.

There are two ways to better understand your current website: qualitative and quantitative.

Qualitative feedback is received by requesting comment from stakeholders and users.

This is traditionally gathered using the following techniques:

Techniques Description
Stakeholder interviews The role of stakeholder interviews is to provide those being
interviewed the opportunity to comment on the existing website. These
comments should be collated for later analysis.
Feedback mechanisms Allow visitors the opportunity to comment on your site using contact us forms, polls, and surveys.
User testing Watching visitors use your existing site can be very enlightening.
It is a powerful way to identify problems in the usability of your site.

Quantitative analysis on the other hand draws upon various automated
analytical tools that provide information on different aspects of your
site’s performance. These include:

Tools Description
Web logs analyzers Every time a user interacts with your website information about
that interaction is stored. Analysis of these logs can help identify
areas of improvement.
Automated performance checkers Automated checkers assess things like accessibility, download times, and browser support. These help maximize your audience.
Online visibility trackers Having a great site is important, but if nobody knows it exists
then it has failed. There are a number of ways to gain an understanding
of how visible your site is online.

Let’s look in more detail at these two approaches and better understand the role of each.

Qualitative feedback

We’ll now take a moment to focus on other feedback mechanisms.

Most websites provide some method by which users can submit
feedback. This is normally a contact page. However, a contact form is a
passive approach and something more proactive is needed if you want
user feedback. The majority of users will not think to send in comments
unless they are frustrated with your site. The problem is that in such
situations they tend to simply leave rather than complain.

If you want feedback on your site then specifically ask for it. This
can be done with a simple feedback form or a more comprehensive survey.
However, a word of warning if you are considering a full-blown survey.
Few users take the time to complete a long survey, so keep your
questions to a minimum. Also avoid making your requests for feedback
too intrusive. They should not hinder a user from completing his or her
goals.

If you are considering making changes to an
existing site, it is well worth implementing a basic feedback mechanism
to canvas opinion before you begin.
Whether you are getting
feedback from your site through user testing or via stakeholder
interviews it is necessary to assess the value of the comments made.
When analyzing negative comments about your site, use these four
criteria to judge how seriously those comments need to be
taken:

  • How often the comment is being made?
  • Who makes the comment?
  • What effect the problem has on the user and your objectives for the site?
  • How easy the problem is to fix?

Adobe support provides a simple and yet unobtrusive feedback
mechanism. The side column asks users if they found the support
document useful.

The more often you are hearing the same negative comment, the more
likely it is that the comment is justified and needs addressing.
However, you cannot rely on numbers alone. If your biggest customer has
a problem then you had better address that concern fast!

There is also a need to ascertain the seriousness of a problem. Does
it stop the user from completing a task or is it simply a mild
inconvenience? Does it in some way hamper a business objective? If it
does then it will need addressing.

Finally, establish how difficult the problem is to fix. Even a minor
problem is worth fixing if it is easy to do. Conversely, fixing a major
problem might be unjustifiable if the expense is prohibitive. In such
situations, look for a workaround that lessens the seriousness of the
issue.

Ultimately these decisions are about return on investment. Does the seriousness of the problem justify the cost of fixing it?

Although nothing is better than feedback from your users, it can be
a battle. Stakeholder interviews and user testing are time consuming,
while site feedback mechanisms are often ignored. Fortunately,
quantitative analysis is much less work. However, it should only be
used to support qualitative feedback—not as a replacement.

Free survey service

Providing a method that allows user feedback does not have to be
expensive or complicated. There are a number of services, such as questionform.com that allow you to create free surveys in minutes.

Quantitative Analysis

I am bad at assembling flat-pack furniture. Part of my problem is
that I never have the right tools. Fortunately when it comes to
analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of your site, there is no
shortage of tools.

Let’s look at the three types of analytical tools I mentioned earlier, starting with web logs.

Web Logs Analyzers

The most well known form of analysis is carried out on a
site’s log files. Log files track where a user has come from,
what pages they have visited, how long they have spent on each page,
and other data on users’ interaction with your site.

The problem is that log files are hard to understand. There are many
tools available to help with this, from free open-source software to
expensive enterprise-level products.

It is probably best to start with something cheap and cheerful. In
my experience the majority of website owners won’t use the
advanced features offered by high-end tools. You can always upgrade
later.

Another option is to use a statistics collector that doesn’t rely on log files. One such tool is Google Analytics.
This collects considerably more data than web logs, and has an easy to
use interface for analyzing the results. It is free of charge and only
requires a small piece of code on each page to work.

So, how do you judge if an existing site is performing? There are three basic things you can look at:

  • The number of unique users and where they are coming from.
    If many sites are linking to you, it is a good indication that you are
    doing something right. Traffic levels also indicate the performance of
    existing marketing campaigns.
  • The percentage of repeat visitors compared to first time users. If users are returning to your site regularly it is normally a sign of satisfaction.
  • How users are moving around your site. How long are they spending on individual pages? How many pages are they viewing? Which page are they leaving the site from?

The final test is trickier to interpret. For example a user might
visit many pages, which could appear to be a sign of interest in the
site. Alternatively, it could mean they cannot find the information
they require. Instead, compare the time on site to the number of pages
viewed. If they are looking at a good number of pages for a reasonable
time then you know things are going well.

By looking at where a user leaves, you can sometimes get an
indication of potential problems. Are users just looking at your
homepage and then leaving? If they are leaving without viewing other
pages then you have a problem with your homepage. Are users getting to
checkout on your ecommerce website and then giving up? Perhaps
it’s time to user-test your checkout process.

There is a lot more you can do with web stats, but that should be enough for you to analyze you existing site.

Let’s now turn our attention to automated checkers.

Automated Performance Checkers

Sometimes when analyzing your web stats you will notice a
significant number of users who leave your site after only viewing a
single page. This can happen for a variety of reasons. For example,
they may have simply come to the wrong site. However, it could also be
because they have met technical difficulties accessing your site.

There are three tests you can easily perform to identify any potential problems.

  • Check your site on as many different browsers as possible.
    I recommend you look at your site in at least the last two versions of
    Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, and Safari. If you do not have
    access to all of these browsers then consider using an online service
    such as browsershots.org.
  • Check your site’s accessibility using an online accessibility checker.
    These tools provide a report outlining the various accessibility
    problems with your site. However, a word of warning; these automated
    accessibility reports can be both misleading and confusing.
    Nevertheless, they can help you identify possible accessibility problem
    with your site.
  • Carry out a speed test on your site. You should be
    looking for download times of less than 10 seconds on a 56k modem.
    However, up to 20 seconds is acceptable. Automated checkers have a
    broader role than monitoring site performance. They can also be used to
    track the online visibility of your site.

Online Visibility Trackers

Web stats and performance checkers provide information on site
usability and accessibility, but they don’t tell you how easy
your site is to find. Fortunately there are tools that do exactly that.
Start with a site like popuri.us.

Popuri.us is a free web application that allows you to check your
site’s ranking on search engines, blog listings, and even social
networking applications. The site checks various sources to ascertain
your online visibility.

If you want information about your site’s ranking for specific search terms, then a tool like GoogleRankings.com
will help. Despite the name, this free application checks all major
search engines, reporting your rankings for whatever terms you specify.

There are also a number of desktop tools that bring all of this
functionality (and more) together. However, for the purposes of
assessing an existing site, the free online tools will be adequate. You
need to monitor your site’s visibility on an ongoing basis,
especially when tracking marketing campaigns. In this situation a
desktop application may be more convenient.

Of course, knowing that your site ranks 4653 on Alexa or that 364 people link to it from del.icio.us,
isn’t in itself that useful. The real power of online visibility
trackers is that you are not limited to checking your own website. You
can check on your competition as well.

This article is based on Website Owners Manual, to be published March 2009. It is being reproduced here by permission from Manning Publications. Manning early access books and ebooks are sold exclusively through Manning. Visit the book’s page for more information.