Powering small to medium size tech companies on renewable power

I’ve been thinking about the steps you can take to green the tech sector, and the more I think about it, the more I think the biggest step for most web/SaaS companies, is likely to be how they power their infrastructure, if it isn’t related to employee transport.

This is confirmed somewhat by the CSR reports by various companies mentioned in this fantastic new resource, climateActTech:

A quick way to estimate what your company’s carbon footprint might be is to find a peer who has a similar business model. At most “cloud based” technology companies the majority of the carbon footprint comes from data center energy use. At other companies it might be from fabrication and manufacturing processes, company travel or directly from other company business interests. Here are a few examples.

“Cloud Heavy” Companies

Manufacturing Companies

Consulting Companies

Knowing where the bulk of your carbon pollution comes from will help you achieve the greatest gains by directing your efforts appropriately.

The thing is, if you’re a large company like Google and Apple it’s possible to do some power purchase agreement (PPA) to effectively power your infrastructure with renewabbles, but as companies get smaller, the options (short of using Google’s own infra, for example) become more restricted too.

So, this piece in Green Biz caught my interest, as it’s the first time I’ve read about smaller companies clubbing together to do a ‘virtual PPA’ :

With FERC’s blessing, Apple and others can participate in so-called “physical” PPAs, where the contract holder actually takes ownership of the energy generated by a project and its sustainability certificates. For those without FERC clearance, a “virtual” PPA offers a chance to buy clean energy from a project at a long-term fixed price without technically being the owner of the power in play.

“Most deals, aggregated or not, are going to be virtual,” Kelly said.

How those agreements are divvied up in an aggregated deal could vary.

One model is to have each company sign its own power purchase agreement — the predominant model to date in the deals that Kelly has seen. An alternative could be an “anchor tenant model,” Kelly said, where one company signs a PPA and others agree to individual contract terms.

In the latter scenario, however, the anchor tenant would become as a middle man that must be comfortable with other participants’ credit ratings.

“It’s kind of putting its own balance sheet out there,” Kelly said.

When you have organisations like Lumenaza offering ‘virtual power stations’ by aggregrating supply from loads of micro scale power generators, and I’m now wondering how small these PPAs can realistically get.

Also, given how Feed In Tariffs in Europe are dwindling over the next two years, it feels like there will be a lot of micro scale generators looking around for new purchasers of power, to keep their plants financially sustainable.

If there are companies who are looking for green power, and providers who will increasingly be looking for new purchasers of power, surely this service must exist already, right?

Right?

 

 

The pleasing mapping between Sam Landers three states and Myddletons’ three types of research

I’m trying to use this blog more, and really on twitter less as an outboard brain. So over the next week or so, I’ll experiment with blogging stuff I’d typically tweet, then link to it.

I came across a nice mapping between two people I find interested and the mental models they present for thinking about user research. The first is Will Myddleton, and the second is Sam Ladner, who I found out about through a Jools, who I met through the Researchops Workshops in May.

Myddleton’s three kinds of user research

I really recommend reading the whole post, but these early paras give a good summary background:

Over the last two years I’ve stumbled into a useful model for talking about this relationship with researchers and their teams. The model helps them understand what to expect from each other, recognise and support each others’ strengths, and work together to make better products.

The model? There are three types of user research product teams should care about:

  1. Testing things the team have built
  2. Working out what the team should build next
  3. Understanding potential users and their lives

Not revolutionary. Not innovative. Just helpful in doing the trickier parts of my job.

Sam Ladner’s take

Sam has a nice model that says similar things:

Too often, researchers take their cue from the scientific method. While this method undoubtedly changed the world and our knowledge of it, it is antithetical to the creative needs of a well-rounded researcher. It is especially problematic for design research, which requires creative solutions to existing problems.

Design researchers should embrace less structure and more openness at the early stages of product design, and rigor and structure in the mature stages of product sales. As sales drop off and the product loses its natural match to the culture, design researchers should once again embrace openness in their research approaches.

Bonus association – Emma Boulton’s research funnel

This isn’t a million miles away from the research funnel that Emma Boulton put forward a while back. I couldn’t find a snappy quote but her post gives a good example of using the activites from the difference phases together.

How much would you need to pay per year to have an ad-free twitter?

I use twitter, and I have done since something like 2006. I’m a white guy, with a follower count in the mid two thousands, so as a result, the biggest problem I get from the site is keeping up with all the tabs I end up opening from it, rather than abuse like other folks I know.

Every now and again, I see a tweet like this (link to tweet):

I have a revolutionary idea. Hear me out: How about if we *pay* a small subscription fee for Twitter and they stop fucking everything up trying to make money every way except charging for their service.

There was another example, by Ben Hammersley saying largely the same thing last year, but since he started deleting his tweets automatically, I can’t point to it now.

Anyway the gist is the same – why don’t we just club together to buy it out? If we did that it wouldn’t be the same cesspit is now, compared to the fun service is was when we started?

I like the idea for this, but I think it would cost more than most people are prepared to pay – something in the region of 200 – 250 USD is my best guess, to make more money than Twitter’s own reporting said it makes from advertising.

Given that app.net and others weren’t able to charge anywhere near that and fizzled out, I’m not sure how this would end up better for Twitter.

My workings

My workings and assumptions are in this spreadsheet, which I shared last time I saw this idea, and I’d really be interested in hearing which assumptions ought to be updated to make this possible, as I’ve shared mine below:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1Baa08XSFCL1O8dvlMit8fnEjaGjxfZNrtVR9GDWh1lE/edit#gid=0

Make a copy, share a link back.

If that’s not your jam, the comments are open below, and my DMs are open on twitter – I’m @mrchrisadams.

 

 

Computing, Climate change and all your relationships

Generally speaking, it’s a small, but growing group of folk who seem to interested in the intersection between climate change and tech.

Earlier in May, I came across Nabil Hussein‘s talk, Computing, Climate Change and All Your Relationships, and boy is it a breath of fresh air – climate change for me is a very much an issue about fairness, and treating humans with basic decency, regardless of where in the world they are.

This is and remains on of the reasons I’m attracted to the web – as Tim Berners Lee said, it’s supposed to be a tool for everyone, not just a small group, and that human potential it allows us to unlock is a source of continuous wonder for me.

Tim Berners Lee, in the London Olympics, with his cameo for the world wide web

I’ve seen a fair few talks, but this is the first time I’ve seen someone in tech talk about climate change in terms of the sheer numbers of people who don’t go to tech conferences who are affected, and how it disproportionately affects people least able to cope with the wrenching changes it’s bringing about.

There was one slide in particular that was particularly effective here:

Screen Shot 2018-08-16 at 18.47.33.png
Comparing the Global North (14% popn, 73% income) and Global South (86% popn, 27% income)

Challenging Bret Viktor’s “options” approach

This is also the first talk I’ve seen that critically engages with Bret Victor’s essay, What Can an Technologist do about Climate Change?

We’re seeing how policy makers in the White House have been undoing progress they’ve made, and you see the same patterns in the UK, with fracking over building a local renewables.

Screen Shot 2018-08-16 at 19.00.41.png

That said, I can’t say I’m totally behind this approach. and I think, having a binary here is oversimplifying things. There’s absolutely cases where in the global North you’re seeing terrible decisions, but there are also cases where you are seeing progress being made, and that helps set the tone for future, more progressive, climate friendly policy.

For example, I see the investment by Germany in renewables over the last 20 years pretty important for decentralising how power is generated over here: both to bring down costs sufficiently to ‘create options for people’, and also counter the concentration of power among the incumbent providers of energy, and encouraing many more small scale producers of energy from renewables.

I guess the counterpoint here is that China, which (on this map at least, is included in the global south) has also played a huge part in shifting the economics of solar, but that’s hardly been a bottom-up approach. It’s been a very deliberate policy decision, the same way China’s National Sword policy was a top down decision to stop importing so much waste from the global north.

Anyway, it’s totally worth 40 minutes of your time if you have a passing interest in climate change, and you work in tech. There’s also a super handy transcript online too. Enjoy!

Losing earth and capitalism and the NY times

I’ve just finished reading this gargantuan piece from the NY Times, Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, which tells the story in the late 80’s of how we almost ended up with meaningful, binding agreements globally to reduce CO2 emissions, when doing so would have drastically reduced the cost of dealing with climate change in the 21st century.

As you’d imagine from as big ticket piece from the likes of the Grey lady, it’s a gripping story. I learned loads of new things about how the narratives used for the global response to ozone depletion was so swift compared with relative foot dragging on climate change, and how long it had been on the radar of the US government.

It’s also somewhat heartbreaking to know how close we came, and towards the end, I found it pretty difficult to come away without wanting to blame one of the political operators in the Bush administration,  James Sununu, for effectively scuttling the negotations when there seemed to be something approaching consensus on reducing CO2 emissions.

In fact, he’s the closest thing the story really has to an antagonist, which is pretty impressive given you have Exxon in the room for half the substantive meetings mentioned.

There’s a good response from Naomi Klein, which I think provides some useful context about the voices involved:

Throughout Rich’s accounting, we hear nothing from those political leaders in the Global South who were demanding binding action in this key period and after, somehow able to care about future generations despite being human. The voices of women, meanwhile, are almost as rare in Rich’s text as sightings of the endangered ivory-billed woodpecker — and when we ladies do appear, it is mainly as long-suffering wives of tragically heroic men.

It’s not that surprising that the New York Times might be a bit US-centric, but one other thing that hadn’t been so obvious to me was the political climate itself , and the rise of neoliberalism – these were the pretty much the heydays of Thatcher and Reagan:

the late ’80s was the absolute zenith of the neoliberal crusade, a moment of peak ideological ascendency for the economic and social project that deliberately set out to vilify collective action in the name of liberating “free markets” in every aspect of life. Yet Rich makes no mention of this parallel upheaval in economic and political thought.

It’s 30,000 words long, so basically a novella, but if you’re interested in anyway by the climate, it’s worth a read.

Things I recently learned about greening aviation

Later this month, I’m flying across the world to Bali, see my some of my sister’s side of the family for the first time in 9 years.

This has led me to do more research into how the CO2 impact of flying can change, both over the short term, and the long term.

Can we just have a Tesla, but for planes?

Surely electrification would save us, right? I mean, it worked for Tesla cars, and electricity you can generate in non-CO2 emitting ways.

I initially thought this, until I read a bit more, and saw this video, and now I’m much less convinced. It’s largely about energy density, and how it affects plane design, and gives an idea of the unforgiving physics involved.

Right now most planes run on kerosene, which is a cheap-ish fossil fuel, that has an energy density of around 37 megajoules per litre. This page on wikipedia gives some idea of the different energy densities of fuels you might have heard of.

If you follow that link you’ll see batteries right now have much lower energy densities, of between 0.9 and 4.5 megajoules per kilo. So, you’d need waaaaay more batteries to provide the the same amount of energy to the plane, to give it the power needed to take off and stay in the air. These extra batteries make the plane heavier, which makes it need more energy to take off, which means you need more batteries, and so on.

So, we’re stuck with fossil fuels?

Maybe not, but for the next 5 years, I don’t think we’ll see electric planes replacing long haul airliners, and planes have a very, very long life span.

My best guess is that we might by take excess electricity on the grid and use that to synthesize compounds that offer the same qualities as kerosene. I’m not an expert at all in this, but this post on the aviation stackexchange was pretty useful for understanding why planes use kerosene in the first place.

So kerosene basically became the standard turbine fuel because it’s:

  • cheap: kerosene makes up a rather large fraction of crude oil. When you measure your fuel load in tons a few cents per litre makes a difference.
  • safe to handle: relatively non-toxic, doesn’t ignite all that easily
  • storable and transportable in common structural metals
  • doesn’t clog up the engine

Until we have something like this, that provides the same energy density, has similar properties like above, and can be used by the existing fleets of planes, I can’t see much change.

Maybe we change the planes instead?

I recently read the Drawdown, a fascinating, if somewhat at times hubristic book about the top 100 interventions possible to reduce, and even reverse global warming. They cover aviation, and provide some figures, along with a summary of the new designs that the industry is working on.

airplanes-web

If you’re curious about why this plane above looks so different, Real Engineering once again has nice, accessible video about the design decisions going into the different shapes the planes are taking.

Changing the planes will help, and is likely to happen anyway given how much the costs of aviation fuel affect profits, but I

What can we do about all the emissions they create?

It was a bit depressing to read that our best hope for aviation is focusing on efficiency, to reduce the amount of nasty crap being emitted, rather than being saved by the magic of zero emissions, flying EVs – as planes, when they’re up the air, do loads of damage environmentally, as they emit CO2 and water vapour.

Also, aviation is set to grow massively as populations of low and middle income countries start wanting to fly like we have been the last 30 years – and the growth isn’t really expected to come from Europe and North America.

Finally, and this is the most contentious part – I’m not sure it’s realistic to just expect everyone to stop flying with some outright ban – the majority of climate change eco-warriors I know still seem to fly, and even if you choose to travel by surface transport, the costs in time and money still don’t make it very accessible.

I’ve run a company where I traveled almost exclusively by train for about 5 years, and it would definitely have been much faster and cheaper just to fly, had it not been a policy decision I had made.

This points, to doing things to offset the fact that damage is happening, by sequestering carbon elsewhere in the system, and focussing efforts to reduce emissions by a comparable amount elsewhere, where it’s more cost-effective to do so.

Summary

This makes me think that right now, our best bets, seem to be:

  • push for policy that makes the costs of aviation borne by those who fly the most, like the FreeRide campaign proposes. We’d fly less in total, but it wouldn’t penalise occasional, family flights as much as the dude flying each week to his house in Bordeaux from London.
  • make offsetting, or similar measures to account for the environmental costs more commonplace
  • focus on finding, or synthesizing alternatives to fossil fuels like kerosene, where we can account for CO2 emitted, and sequestered through the lifecycle of creating, and using the fuel

For what it’s worth, my mind isn’t made up – and I’d welcome some discussion in the comments about our options for transport.

I’d love to hear if battery energy density could make EVs for passenger aviation more feasible, and if whether developments in hydogen, mean it’s possible to see family members without implicitly making a value judgement that their lives are worth more than people in places more likely to be hit by climate first, by flying to see them.

Anyway, hope this shed some light for others.