Cambridge Network Corporate Gateway 30 March 2009

A very short and humorous first on-stage appearance for the new CEO gave way to three interesting talks, in a session chaired well by Peter Taylor of TTP.

The first was by Austin Smith, on stem cells, the second on uses of Gallium Nitride and the last on computers programmed to monitor emotions shown in the faces of human beings! The “Cambridge ideas that change the world” strapline, was certainly not an unfair one, don’t you think, given these titles at least?

In the first talk, the speaker told us that much work on stem cells was stimulated by the use of the atom bomb. He mentioned that skin stem cells are the only ones that can grow outside the body, and could produce skin that is ‘relatively normal’ and that lasts a lifetime.

He went on to discuss technical aspects such as the ‘blastocyst‘ and ‘pluripotency‘.

Then he came back to ‘societal challenges’ and there were a good number of problems for stem cells, beginning with “religious and political” and “access to ‘materials'”. He argued effectively that the technology could keep more people alive for longer, and it seemed that those would likely be people in the West rather than developing countries, which he mentioned was another “challenge”.

The second was by Colin Humphreys of the Centre for Gallium Nitride. He began with the classic Carnegie talk opening of stating a big problem or three: global warming, energy and drinking water. And then claimed that GaN was the solution. Thus gaining the attention of his audience!

He claimed that solid state lighting, though currently expensive, was four times as efficient as CFLs which are themselves four times as efficient as incandescent light bulbs. It is hard to believe that the UK population gets through 5kWh per household per day on lighting, but there we are. Note to self to check this against figures in David Mackay’s “Sustainable Energy: without the hot air” book. In terms of ROI, one needs to consider the lifetime of these lighting technologies too. The incandescents, he claimed, last 1000 hours. The CFLs ten times as long and the LEDs ten times longer than the CFLs. The LEDs need less maintenance, and therefore are most cost effective where they are difficult to get at. It was good to hear an academic so fluent in the commercial side.

I liked the anecdote of best managing jetlag by walking around the block near the hotel you’ve just arrived in a couple of times. He told the audience that electric lighting doesn’t speak to the body’s clock in the way that natural light does.

On drinking water, after reverse osmosis (the most commonly used technology at present) and solar heating and cooling, he suggested water purification via irradiation using GaN lighting in the deep UV part of the spectrum, where other forms of lighting couldn’t reach. This wasn’t too efficient, and one wondered about cost. He suggested solar cells to power them, and that this was an application for developing countries, but also possibly for the West in places where the water is not quite as it should be.

The last talk was by Peter Robinson on Emotionally intelligent interfaces. This was a fascinating and humorously-delivered talk. When the audience chips in with a range of possible applications on first hearing about a technology, you know it might be an interesting one. There was a roar of laughter at an animation generated by the model, of a person knocking at a door with two different emotions: anger and sadness. The laughter was simply that of agreement with the animations and perhaps recognition of these unfortunate states experienced personally at times! There were various jokes about computer scientists talking to others while looking no further than their own feet.

One person suggested the technology would assist autistic people in understanding what the person they are with is feeling. One couldn’t help but think that it would help not only autistic people, but, say, husbands / wives / family members / friends, generally. But perhaps my application idea is mad: shouldn’t we actually try to understand our wives / loved ones or friends or colleagues better, without technology? I’ll leave you with this classic question of when technology is improving things for us, and when is it making them worse?

Home Energy and Technology (HEAT) 2008 Conference Summary by Justin Hayward

Conference Home

A buzz of over 100 people and 10 exhibitors discussed for 10 hours in 12 talks, 5 special elevator pitches, 2 panel sessions, and 3 hours of social networking, ways to cut in a big way emissions to do with the built environment, as well as ways of building their businesses. The sins of greenwashing: ‘every little helps’; vagueness (what are the figures?); lack of proof; lying; hidden costs or omissions; mentioning only the better of two bad things; were all at the forefront of the minds of delegates at this independent conference on home energy and technology. 

The day began with a description of the difficulties for the early pioneers: solar thermal with storage of heat. Few had such systems, according to a quick audience survey, but the experience in building them into an old house were clear: hire specialists, do not choose builders who don’t care about energy matters. If it is not in their hearts and minds, they will not enjoy the work and you will waste effort and money just getting them to install it properly, and indeed do all the basic things needed to facilitate it, such as lagging all pipes and cutting out drafts.
Using a super efficient solar accumulator tank, much larger than a normal one, and with vastly greater insulation, one could reduce the loss of energy from it to 40-100W as compared to nearly 500W from a normal tank, thus reducing temperature loss overnight to 2-3C, rather than 25-30C. By taking in energy from solar thermal flatplate panels or collectors, one could heat this water and store that energy as a thermal store; and then use it for the radiators and hot water taps. By early March in Cambridge, an average system is heating the water up to more than 40C on a day with a decent run of sunshine.

An example was given of a very careful person’s carbon footprint: but air travel to visit relatives in the US made it very difficult to be significantly below average. The solar thermal system led to a heating-related emissions level of just one third the national average.

The keynote speaker in the morning stated that energy use was set to increase by 57% between 2002 and 2025 according to EPRI, ACEEE and IMS research.
With a chip design company, he was focused on efficient end-use of energy, with the other two pillars of sustainable energy mentioned as renewables and efficient delivery of primary energy to end-use. Poor efficiency of electrical output used in motion was singled out at the area his company could do most with regarding reduction of energy use, and was half of all electrical energy consumption. He suggested that 60% of energy in electrical motors could be saved and that small motors were the best places to look to achieve this (those of less than 10-20kW power).

The claim was that switching to energy efficient motor driven systems can save Europe up to 341 billion kWh/Euro 31 billion per year in electricity (according to BERR, Eurostat and SEEEM 2006). This would translate to about 42 billion kWh for the UK, which is 2 kWh a person a day. This is a small amount of our energy, perhaps about 11% of our electrical energy usage in the UK (not including losses in conversion). In the UK we all use about 125 kWh/day across all types of energy, 18kWh a person a day is in electrical usage but a further 27kWh a person a day is in losses from the primary sources of electrical energy. (see Mackay “Sustainable Energy”).

The speaker went on to say that a range of stakeholders benefit from energy efficiency: Who? Manufacturers can have a more reliable product; service providers should have fewer product returns; The customer has lower energy bills; The government is helped with its energy (sustainability and security) policy; and last but not least, the environment is better protected.

The next speaker presented micro and nano scale energy re-cycling techniques. He looked at savings in electronic design for packaging, air conditioning battery packs. His intelligent output driver would “reduces power losses in driven load by up to 75% and reduce the number of components in a system.” He promised technology for the future which would recycle energy within chips.

Another speaker suggested that refrigeration is a significant source of emissions and inefficiencies and could be helped by better technologies.

Two speakers talked of the need to measure energy and emissions (in the home) through smart metering, so that the homeowner could make better decisions. For example, putting washing into a tumble dryer might be 10% of ones energy bill, whereas putting that washing on the line costs zero or near zero energy and emissions, though it takes more time and effort. The point is that by knowing what the ‘big tickets’ are one can address those and not waste too much time on those which are not, such as phone chargers (less than 0.1% of the average bill).

Looking at the grid for electricity as a whole, another speaker showed a picture of the US from the sky at night, looking very bright across of high percentage of the land mass, and said that $1000Bn of investment was needed to right an aging grid seeing increasing demand.

She noted the stringent regulations on carbon emissions to come. The upgraded smart grid would see many distributed resources complementing central renewable generation of various kinds. This would make grids more resilient to various problems such as faults and natural disasters and would be optimised for variable load factors. The grid would provide higher quality power. Time of use pricing would become more visible and wholesale markets better integrated (“market empowerment”).

The smart grid would not only do all the above, but enable energy storage as needed, so as not to waste it so much and to reduce the overall levels needed to be generated. There would be benefits to utilities and demand smoothing with distributed generation and storage.

The speaker talked of a ‘jigsaw puzzle’ involving utility company and consumer and their settlement based around a number of factors: consumption or ‘negawatts’ (not); small scale generation; large-scale generation; and efficient distribution.

There was a business opportunity for those controlling the home side of the smart grid; consumers would see benefits from the smart grid, which this speaker claimed was real, not theoretical.

The idea of patenting inventions and various other legal areas such as trademarks and copyrighting were presented as ways to procure competitive defence, offensive strategy and licensing models and last but not least as a bargaining chip/selling point and valuation driver in negotiations.

The solar session followed after lunch networking.
The first speaker talked of solar thermal. He had carried out pilot studies with various types of household: e.g. two adults and a child; three children; one adult and two children; two adults and so on. Generally, over one year, they diverted from 30% to 70% of their gas usage to ‘free’ solar.

He went on to show that solar thermal and air source heat pumps gave the biggest ‘bang for buck’ on CO2 emissions reductions as compared with PV and micro-wind. PV was not far off the pace; wind was very low.

BERRs renewable energy strategy document suggested 7 million solar thermal installations was the target. This would correspond to a quarter of all homes? The HEAT audience survey showed about 3% having installed solar thermal technology.

A speaker on transparent solar energy said that “PV is one of the world’s fastest growing industries -averaging 34% cagr for 30 years and 44% in past 5 years with doubling in 2008 alone. Its installed capacity was only 252MW in 2008, 3073MW in 2007 and some 5000MW in 2008. The PV market was worth some Euro 6bn in 2007 and projected to be worth Euro 10bn in 2008 growing to Euro 30bn by 2012. The forecast for 2013 is $100bn revenues and 23GW (LuxResearch); production doubled in 2008 and forecast to reach 29000MW in 2012. Commercial investment in PV in 2007 alone has been Euro 32bn rising 77% over the previous year.

PV’s growth was reflected in application shift. In 1997 only 8% PV was grid connected. In 2007 90% was grid connected”. Yet, he went on, “the opportunity is just touching the surface. Germany and Spain alone represent 70% of demand and Japan and California most of the

PV market drivers are energy security, fuel costs/cost volatility (grid parity within reach), global warming and imposed regulations and feed-in tariffs.

Another PV speaker looked at how PV was first “off-planet” then “off-grid” and now “on-grid”.

A chart was shown giving the price of PV generated electricity in 1990 to 2040, with worst case values coming down to Euro 40 cents in 2010 and then down to Euro 20 cents in 2020 and on down to Euro 10 cents by 2035. Best case prices were at Euro 18, 13 and 5 cents at those corresponding dates. Prices reached those of the grid between 2008 and 2020 for highest grid prices and between 2020 and 2034 for lowest grid prices.

A chart of countries’ situations showed Italy reaching grid parity now, California, Spain and Australia reaching it well before 2020, and other nations trailing, notably China and India. The south of the UK appeared to fall just after the 2020 grid parity curve.

Examples were given of EU nations’ feed-in tariffs, such as France, where a very favourable, guaranteed tariff payment to those people generating PV of Euro 57 cents per kWh. It is clear that for most systems this would mean that there would be a net income back to the customer for that 20 year period. The UK lags badly this kind of initiative, and one wonders what political capital problem there can be in implementing it. One hopes given France and Germany have done it, this is not the reason why the UK cannot follow: the UK can decide to it in spite of this, if needs be.

The business model resulting from such FiTs was presented, giving a claimed 12-14% IRR (which takes into account capex for the installation). The building owner would lease her roof space for the system thus obtaining an income from it that wasn’t there before, the PV developer would install it, and the third party investor would benefit from that positive IRR.

An alternative model was that the bank would finance the installation by a service company for a homeowner, who would obtain a small income for ten years and a larger one for a further ten to twenty years. The service company would also design the system and arrange the finance with the bank.

It was estimated that from 20% up to 59% of electricity in the largest 5 Western European states could be derived from solar PV: 178 to 512 of 860 Terawatt hours a year.

The industry’s target as of 2008 was 12% of EU electricity to come from PV by 2020, corresponding to a 350GWp (Gigawatt peak power).

A member of the audience discussed his own PV system and claimed that it had provided more than half of his electricity on tap and had paid for the entire bill through selling back to the energy ‘provider’.

The final speaker in the solar session had a rather different technology, that of concentrated solar power. This works by converting heat produced from solar thermal energy directed from a system of mirrors to steam and then the steam drives turbines that create electricity, which is sent into the grid.

The speaker suggested that carbon capture and storage doesn’t work, because the CO2 leaks out and was susceptible to natural shocks. He also claimed that it was uneconomic and not ready.

He described nuclear energy as “one major incident from shutdown” and cited the power plants, fuel reprocessing and toxic nuclear waste as possible causes of this. He noted the 10-15 year implementation timescale that was almost as bad as for CCS.

He noted the challenges for renewables of load-matching, financing and political collaboration.

Concentrated solar power was beneficial in that it had lower costs, higher cell efficiencies and low areas needed.
It could be applied to cooling as well as heating. Also: air-conditioning; desalination; power generation and water pumping.

The CSP technology would also meet green targets reduce business exposure to energy price spikes and decouple the timing of projects from the availability of the power grid or gas networks.

There was a discussion on ‘Solar communities’, timely infrastructure, walking communities, mobility, lower cost long term and silent energy. The idea was that cities have become, like SUVs, ‘unfit for purpose’.

In the final session, an investment fund spoke of energy efficiency as key to the energy problem. They showed a German Advisory Council chart claiming that solar would provide just under 25% of global primary energy by 2050, with fossil fuels and nuclear still at 50%, and other renewable carriers making up the 25% or so combined. By 2100, they foresaw that solar energy would represent 75% of the mix, with fossil fuels and nuclear having reduced right down to 10-15%.

A company offering the construction of code 5-6 “passive homes” under modern methods of construction, in very short timescales from partial kit form, gave a highly interesting talk. Clearly, since we are currently generally at code level 3, this would be a tremendous leap-frog. Housing associations are very interested in passive homes, for obvious reasons. The current building industry slump clearly isn’t helping this type of development go ahead.
The speakers told the conference that: “Domestic property contributes 27% of UK’s CO2 emissions. The Government is seeking to reduce the emissions from new homes to zero carbon in all new housing by 2016.”

Space heating was claimed to be just under 60% of household energy consumption.
Assuming that the space heating causes approximately the same level of emissions per unit energy as the rest of the energy use, this means that by eliminating the need for space-heating we could save a maximum of 16% of our CO2 emissions nationally by building or retrofitting to only Passive Houses. Of course this is unlikely! But for any new builds, it can be done.

What is passive house? The speaker likened it to a super efficient thermos flask rather than a wasteful hot-plate for a jug of coffee. With the thermos flask, the coffee remains hot for a period of time, and the flask is “off-grid”.

The aim is to keep the heat within the house. One uses heat exchanger coils to transfer heat from outgoing ‘used air’ to the fresh air coming in. That is, a mechanical ventilation system with heat recovery provides clean and healthy air around the clock, eliminating the need to air the house manually. The building is airtight. The design is such that the southfacing aspects allow in warmth through triple-glazed windows. The walls are thicker. More sustainable materials than concrete and steel are typically used. The way that heat is lost through the roof and floor is dealt with with new technologies. While nothing is ever perfect, this set of arrangements makes the house vastly better at keeping in heat.

The first offsite-manufactured Passive House in the world was built in Ireland in 2003, in just 25 days!

The UK Government wants 3 million new homes built by 2020….35% to be social and affordable! All new homes to be zero-carbon from 2016. This speaker claimed the solution was to apply pre engineered, offsite manufactured, Passive
House technology to all new homes in UK.

We look forward to 2009 seeing you for continuing conversations and discussions on 19 June, 25 September, 3-4 December!

Sustainable Cities

This conference 17-18 March 2009, Cambridge, England, described –

how we are a long way from meeting the required “curves” of emissions that the IPCC models believe will keep global warming below 5C by 2100, which we were told, would make “most” of the world’s land uninhabitable and require a reduction in population; someone reported that at a conference in Copenhagen it was reported that scientists believed there was a 50% chance of our emissions performance keeping said global warming below that 5C level by that time (2100) (when we expect our children’s children will be living);

that we are far from being able to design a building and get the exact results and performance expected;

slums and favelas being turned into nicer places as a result of land rights being taken by those who live in them;

we can grow food crops in cities;

off-grid passive + solar houses are not easy to construct (at least by student teams);

how people have emissions that increase linearly with wealth but that this can be avoided (Japan) and planned against (China);

how we animals are in a tiny minority of species on the planet, and that the majority are plants (and bacteria) (some people strongly believe for example that trees have rights and we read that there are now lawyers who represent natural things like rivers);

how BREEAM and LEED lead to somewhat differing behaviours by developers;

the view that scientists, technologists and engineers should lead the way in our path away from the industrial model and toward sustainability and biomimicry, etc(!);

how we shall need to move to the “ecological age” by 2050, defined as less than 20% of our current emissions levels and less than 20% of our land area need per person;

how there is an increasing frequency of the “meme” (I’m not a Dawkinsian, but a Hawkingite) that we should aim for economic stability rather than growth;

that GDP growth should be replaced by improvements in the HDI or Human Development Index (which I understand is topped by Iceland at the moment!);

that the President of China has announced that China should become an “Eco Civilisation” and develop the “Circular (closed loop/self-resource-sufficient) economy”;

that McKinsey have offered an ‘abatement strategy’ summarised in a now-well-known chart, in which a list of things which give an ‘immediate’ return (left hand side of x axis) and a list of actions which cost a bit with a later payback, and that the requirement they suggest of Euro 150 billion a year for 20 years is small compared to the financial crisis bail-outs we’ve seen offered recently;

that pension funds can obtain good guaranteed returns from deals involving development work to move to a low carbon economy;

that resource efficient goods and services would be the highest growth sector for a long time.

The above is a report of a few random things that were said at the Engineering Department at the Sustainable Cities Conference 17-18 March 2009 by a range of speakers.

Personal Reflections on Entrepreneurship for a Zero Carbon Society

This conference, a forerunner of Solar Smart HEAT08 in Cambridge on 28 November, came when there were great ructions in the financial markets; one wondered if this would overshadow proceedings. It did not. It was clear that the financial problems were less important and would be more quickly acted upon than those of climate and environment, and indeed things like water and other resource scarcity and poverty. The rich will move quickly to help the rich, but not to help the poor. Terry Barker predicted the scale of the financial problem and showed how the two issues were similar and different. Some mused on to what extent they were correlated or were as cause and effect. Perhaps the huge ‘created-monies’ from credit cards, mortgages and other debt, leads to the higher levels of spending; and marketing and a desire for cheap things leads to globalisation and pollution. Then you have scarce resources in the production zones and end up moving not only products but raw materials in great amounts and over large distances. So there may be links.

The summary of the conference threads seemed to be:

1. CO2 and PPM
Noting the requirement not to go much higher than the current levels of CO2 in ‘parts per million’ – ever.
Indeed, some suggested we’d already reached ‘risky levels’. Some repeated the need to keep within certain very stringent levels (<450ppm) to keep the total warming to less than 2 degrees centigrade. But this was seen as unlikely, and higher, more dangerous levels of CO2 and warming were expected. Democracies and selfish individuals couldn’t ‘sort it out’. Hence a great deal of ‘doom and gloom’.
2. Electricity
This was seen as the way forward and the way the future would look. You get the electricity from renewables. Cars help grids (see below).
3. Scale
The scale of the needed rapid move toward renewables was hammered home time and time again. People talked of ‘country-sized’ (e.g. Wales) or ‘10%-coastline-long’ arrays of solar panels, wind farms and tidal barrages.
4. Tides
These were seen as a strong for the UK, but not necessarily everywhere else. They work like clockwork unlike many other renewables and can serve base load requirements for the grid.
5. Numbers adding up
This is the hobby horse of Professor David Mackay, who’s writing a book (, a horse I support 100%. He advocates the “kWHr per person per day” as a standard unit to compare all sources with, and that all calculations should be correct and logical without the puff: imprecise adjectival and metaphorical references. He warns against adding up trivial savings, like “phone chargers off”, as this will always be a small fraction of usage even if we all do it.
6. Education
This was shown by the same professor to be done by all of us teaching and by interaction rather than in lecture theatres and with PPT presentations…and certainly not with newspapers.
7. Solar
Solar energy was seen as the leading and most direct way to generate renewable energy or heat.
8. Nasty sources
Nuclear and carbon capture were generally rejected, as were biofuels (but see below). Nuclear because it is just a displacement of the problem (Peak Uranium, half-life), but it was included in the short-term models removing energy gaps. It also has large moral issues (genocide) and big risks (wrong hands). Carbon capture: this was too little too late (technology and implementation 20 years off), said also to be risky against large earth tremors, etc; and generally also suffers from running out.
9. The City
The City was said to reject nuclear and carbon capture too, for reasons around high risks and long lead times. Any (bio)fuels which pitted land-use for fuels against food was totally rejected; the city being the think-tank that it is, albeit an amoral one, can easily calculate greater losses and issues from such a strategy, outweighing any benefits.
10. Variety of Solar
Solar was split in various ways. Large-scale, country-sized or industrial projects we mentioned above. And micro residential or street-type projects. Commercial use. The main issue was that such huge numbers of panels or collectors are needed that we’d have to scale up manufacturing and sourcing ‘enormously’ (sorry for another adjective here). Then it was split into PV panels, transparent PV materials replacing windows, concentrated solar power, which is a large-scale matter where heat is generated and stored in large salt vats to be reconverted to electricity. Solar collectors for micro-heating were mentioned.
11. Large Solar
The large scale solar projects were promising. Concentrated solar and solar PV on a grand scale. Many of the areas where one would like to put them were in relatively local and uninhabited places, such as Northern Africa for Europe and within the US itself and Central America for North America.
12. Small Solar
The small scale projects, solar hot water was said to be a “no-brainer” even now for many millions of people. The total cost is around £4,000 and most of ones heating and hot water needed can be covered with this investment. PV installations cost much more in the UK at around £10,000 for 2kW. Off-grid solutions of both of these may become much more attractive with new technologies coming online. In many European countries the equation becomes profitable with high ‘feed-in tariffs’.
13. Wind
As for wind, we may need enormous areas of land. Truly beautiful, tree-like vertical axis turbines were shown off. This form of energy, unlike tidal, and indeed solar in some parts of the world, is not reliable, but storage makes it valuable. But in the UK, like the more reliable tidal power, we have lots of potential room for on and offshore wind power stations or areas.
14. Battery cars
Battery cars could become prevalent and non-battery vehicles old-fashioned. These battery vehicles could smooth grid-use variability, and indeed act as storage vessels for energy, sending power back to the grid or property. There are lower investments in infrastructure for battery vehicles than alternatives (such as hydrogen cars), very high recyclability of metals for batteries, poor performance and risk of such technologies as hydrogen fuel cells. All forms of hybrid, except perhaps the serial, last-resort hybrid were seen as rejectable. Today’s cars were seen not to be fit-for-purpose. People were keen to buy the battery cars touted by a speaker. Those battery cars were said to be programmable with downloads and upgrades to software, rather than by reliance on the specialised garage and costly software diagnostic kits, which again boded well for simpler times driving. It was also noted that in the urban space, the battery car performed much better, and cost ten times less than running a petrol driven car. Not only this, they are far quieter. The battery cars were designed to be at least as safe as petrol cars; the use of composites makes them lighter and the myth of safety of large “us-versus-the-rest” cars was touted.
15. Peer pressure
As hinted above, this could come in massively when neighbours start vying for the best and most complete renewable and low carbon solutions and wasting energy becomes embarrassing and quaint. The idea of presentations by individuals, whether poor, middling or rich, on what they have been doing for zero-carbon in their own personal cases was seen as something that would be very interesting to share.

16. Personally
I’m happy to change behaviour, and reduce carbon emissions and energy use as best I can. Copenhagen Consensus and reasonable people say that solving the problems of poverty and injustice comes in ahead of reducing emissions. I believe we must move to sustainable consumerism and more equal prosperity as we outlaw, restrict and eliminate environmental damage. I note that Terry Barker said that the markets created as we rush to sustainability are large, larger than what we have now. I believe the net zero-carbon opportunity for sectors like manufacturing, technology business, investment and finance, and indeed the general economy are enormous, and positive (oops, two more adjectives!)

I support a move from GDP as now defined, to a GDP that is never ‘negative’. We can’t build casinos and prisons, add their products to GDP and be glad when it goes up. We need a ‘GDP’ only of healthy positive inputs. That is the GDP that we aim to grow. If what we measure is right, perhaps this will help guide us.

Making Clusters Attractive and Accessible Websites

Review of the GCP Annual Conference on 22 May 2008 at Hinxton Hall

A very well attended event, humorous Chairing, good set of briefing talks, excellent summary of how to rate clusters and how GC is doing. A nice summary of the general financial markets situation and mood in the City.

It was nice to hear that detailed, connected, accessible websites were seen as a ‘ranking’ strength or enabler for clusters. Our marker map at is free, open, linked to from the key sites of Cambridge Network and Cambridge University, lists all 750 high tech tier-one companies in the cluster, their position on the map, their sector (one of 9 key ones), their profile description, all of which is searchable.

So that particular thing is done. It just remains to find sufficient support in the tech cluster to keep it updated…

HVM (Closed Loops) 2008 Conference Summary

Summary of HVM Closed Loops Conference Discussions

The conference began by stating that the overall aim was to increase prosperity of a net positive kind, while reducing net use of finite natural resources. This tends to equate to an improved quality of life.

We saw that the ‘anthrosphere’ was in a ‘closed loop’ with the ‘ecosphere’. This is the statement that man is inexorably connected with nature, and that to all intents and purposes the ‘natural world’ is finite, as we are disconnected by great distances from other mineral resources in the universe. We are working in a closed system fed by the sun’s energy. Delegates were shown a diagram showing resources taken out of the ground in one place, ending with a picture of a landfill site somewhere else. This system was patently based on ‘open loop’ principles, and in contrast to the obvious global ‘closed loop’ that had been shown immediately prior.

The concept that ‘closed loops’ could preserve the capital or value in materials and products was then laid before delegates. Two speakers separately made the point that the tighter and shorter those closed loops, the better, but with stipulations that we shall mention below. Clearly, if we tend to close loops at the level of finished products, this tends to be preferable to closing loops, for example, by mining landfill sites at the end of the usage chain.

It was noted that closed loops within plants and factories were highly desirable, such as in the use and reuse of water. Water flows within closed loops for decades within domestic central heating systems, for example, and this principle can be applied with great effect to industrial situations. The anecdote of Edward de Bono was given, where he suggested to an industrialist that if they sent water output from the plant into the river upstream of the plant, then this would ensure incentives for processes to clean up the water being used. In Austria, it is common for management and staff to live slightly downstream of their factory outputs on the river. It was noted that regulations tend to force more reuse of materials within plants.

In the packaging sector, re-use was described as working well in closed loop shipping, especially for bulky, high value items and when suppliers and customers are grouped near to each other. Similarly to the ideas presented in the automotive ‘sale of service’ talk, more costly packaging which lasts much longer was shown to be more economic, whilst clearly more sustainable.

A long list of benefits of reusable packaging were presented. But the speakers covering this suggested that savings and benefits must be carefully and ‘holistically’ assessed, case-by-case, ideally modelled for all estimable parameters and tested in practice.

The example of the decline in doorstep delivery in electric floats of milk and other goods was given. Bottles made of glass used to be taken back and multiply reused; now, we use and throw away polythene cartons whose production is resource costly. The price of delivered milk was shown to have diverged from supermarket carton milk in the years from 1995 to 2004.

Reverse logistic chains were discussed, and said to be made more difficult by variability which leads to high labour inputs, inventory, poor plant use and lower recovered value.

Many categories of ownership transfer models were discussed, which provide incentives for reducing net use of resource by recycling and reusing materials and products. Examples were ‘mandatory take-backs’, ‘deposits’, ‘buy-back’, ‘lease’ and ‘service’ models. In the service model, which was discussed at various stages of the conference, ownership remains with the supplier. The customer then tends to take more care of the used items, and the supplier will tend to provide the cheapest and longest lasting way to meet the service requirement (calculations for the supplier involve ‘Total Cost of Ownership’). This way, interests are aligned so as to avoid use of resource.

The case of beer was discussed. Here, there are several ownership models extant for a single commodity: pub retained glass vs festival bought glass, kegs and bottles and so on.

Closed loops were said to be just one way to improve resource productivity. One can reduce or eliminate use, reuse, recycle or just reduce impact of disposal. Some methods had apparent tensions, such as investing more materials into products in order to extend product life. This was discussed further later in the context of plastics.

It was suggested that businesses should “systematically and persistently seek opportunities for savings”. This might involve planning, trialling, monitoring and reviewing while searching for new opportunities. Not unnaturally, it was felt that independent advice could lead to great improvements that internal thinking might miss.

In a talk on lean thinking, ‘work’ and ‘waste’ were discussed. If customer needs were met better, value was being added. Processes that did not add value, but allowed the supplier to meet regulations were a necessary other aspect of ‘work’. Any other activity is ‘waste’. An example was given where a company performing an analysis of work and waste showed that about 60% of effort being put in was “non value-added work or plain waste”.

Human factors in service-provision were seen as crucial: the interface between people, procedures, machines and the environment. With a persistent rational approach, great gains could be made.

A pivotal talk on sale of service with an example in automotive, suggested that: ‘being less bad is no good’. This refers among other examples, to the continual improvements in efficiencies of petrol and diesel driven, steel-based vehicles (which are highly technologically mature). The obvious basis to this statement is that the number of vehicles shall continue to rise, and that resources used in this manner shall eventually run out. That is, technical resource productivity is necessary but not sufficient in solving global environmental problems. We do need closed loops too, and energy efficiency will be paramount in this, which was the subject of another, electronics sector talk.

It was also argued that vehicle technology is no longer fit for purpose, nor the process by which private transport is provided for society. With sales of product, if one “makes more money from selling a car, one makes more money from selling more cars. A company that sells a (private) transport service rather than vehicles has a financial interest in reducing cost and maintenance and increasing reliability, ownership cycle and product life, as well as energy efficiency. Thus currently opposed interests of society and manufacturers are aligned by sale of service instead of product. Longevity becomes a competitive advantage and the market becomes self-regulating. Problems exist in switching, as this must involve the entire supply chain, and design becomes more crucial”.

A talk on industrial symbiosis suggested that there were projects extant which greatly reduced waste. Relatedly, waste was seen as a business opportunity that is growing. If one can reduce the cost of recycling and improve the quality of recycled output, then the opportunity grows further. Recycling was said never to be 100% efficient, and pirating of products and materials was stated later to be a real problem for closing loops. The point that reprocessed materials often had reduced strength and uses was made; environmental benefits had to be in a compromise with mechanical properties.

There is no single approach that is right for every situation. Later speakers asked the audience to make sure that they were backing approaches that, all things considered, were having the desired effect. They challenged the audience to be wary of fogs of commercials making false claims that amount to “green-washing”, the popular press offering misleading, out-of-context anecdotes, and to appealing but sometimes emotive rather than rational comments of certain other voices.

The organisers CIR hoped that the forum and future fora should provide a place for knowledge to be exchanged, that might enable us to more towards our stated goals. Please see the below link for more information about 2008 Conferences, which we hope all past delegates will attend.

Past HVM Conferences – Programme Talks and Video Podcasts

Forthcoming Conferences

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