Thursday, 22 April 2010

Who to vote for? Single-issue voting for the world of 2020.

This evening I’ll be joining millions of other Brits to watch the second of three televised debates between the major political parties. With Labour, Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats all neck-and-neck in the polls, having seen Obama achieve a radical victory in America, and with the country apparently emerging from bruising economic turmoil, there’s more than a whiff of change in the air and an increasing feeling that perhaps, just perhaps, our votes really can make a difference this time. But what really are the differences between the parties - what key deciding factors should we take into account? And once we’ve decided what we want the outcome to be, then how do we make it happen?

Picking a strategy

With New Labour having become arguably more right-wing than the Conservatives, and all parties increasingly trying to steal each others’ policies to appeal to a growing middle class, it’s hard to just go with a default decision based on old party-political beliefs and traditions.

The credit crunch continues to be the talking point of the moment, but given the need to reduce our public borrowing the parties all seem to be in rough consensus about the necessary economic “trajectory”, so no help in deciding there either.

We change our governing party twice a decade, so 2020 seems a suitable horizon to plan for. What do we want the United Kingdom to look like by then, and what strategy should we follow to get us there?

For me the overwhelming elephant in the room remains climate change. Given the lack of distinguishing features on other topics, in this election I’ve become a “single issue” voter. I’m going to cast my vote entirely on the basis of how I believe my vote will best influence our approach to climate change.

How our country reacts to climate change over the next decade will either see us playing our part as a world citizen, becoming a leader in the transition and reaping the benefits of creating new intellectual-property, revitalising manufacturing in a second industrial revolution of sustainability, and improving our quality of life ... or else it will see continued economic decline driven by less and less investment in engineering, a failure to capitalise on our inventiveness, and the country wracked by an increasingly expensive and unreliable energy supply.

So I’ve been looking at each party’s manifesto, to try to find a sliver of difference on attitudes to climate change on which to make my voting decision.


Labour's huge advantage – and disadvantage – as the incumbents is that rather than have to believe their promises, we can look at their actions. Over the last couple of Labour terms we’ve seen some great political progress on the environment in some areas, for example the creation of the Carbon Trust, the Energy Act and Climate Change Act legally committing us to reducing carbon, the Stern Review, feed-in tariffs, and the Carbon Reduction Commitment. But all of these initiatives still have something of a feeling of “promises, promises” rather than “action this day”, and have been accompanied by seeming foot-dragging in other important areas. One example is the apparent failure to plan substantial new clean generation to secure our energy supply - so not only is our economy increasingly at the mercy of foreign powers, but it looks increasingly likely that by 2015 we may be experiencing rolling blackouts (as David MacKay has warned for years).

From anecdotal reports from people closer than me, I get the strong impression that most of the progress on climate change in the UK has been driven by the people who really run the country (yes, our Civil Service) and that Gordon Brown has indeed been actively resisting some of these schemes. A particularly telling moment which greatly influenced my belief in whether he can grasp the big picture was when he responded to this winter’s heavy snowfalls with the comment that “no-one could have predicted them”. Will he be equally surprised when one day, out of the blue, a storm surge floods part of London, or a hurricane destroys some coastal towns?


OK, it’s so easy to knock the incumbents, what about the Tories? Cameron started pretty well, with Zac Goldsmith and co., and many of the last decade’s political initiatives on climate change have either initiated, or at least supported, by Conservative policy. So, not a bad start, and there’s been some real leadership there – setting out a vision on climate change and working towards it. But there are valid concerns about whether Cameron has the party faithful completely behind him – within the party there is a faction of climate-change sceptics, and a good dose of “nimby” reactionaries to nuclear power and windfarms - plus a separate “market forces” faction that’s seems to want economic growth at any cost, e.g. the Heathrow expansion. So with an eye to a second term, will Cameron be forced to soft-pedal on sustainability?

Rather disappointingly, none of the major parties are currently majoring on climate change in their political posturing. I nurse a hope that this is because they just don’t want to frighten the voters (or trouble our tiny minds), and that once the election is over there’ll be sufficient clear water to really make some progress ... but we’ll see.

For what it’s worth, in March the Conservatives released a policy paper entitled “Rebuilding Security: Conservative Energy Policy for and Uncertain World”, which listed the following priorities:

· Maintaining the security of energy supplies.

· Sustaining the UK’s ecosystems.

· Improving the economics of energy usage for consumers and business.

· Generating opportunities for growth in the British industrial and commercial sectors

Liberal Democrat

During the expenses scandal it was notable that, given plenty of rope, plenty of Labour and Conservative politicians lined-up to hang themselves with it, whereas LibDem MP’s conspicuously failed to do so. That may just possibly be relevant to this debate because climate change requires actions today which may be unpopular, so a degree of moral fibre is required.

Of the three main parties, the LibDem’s have by far the most aggressive agenda in terms of the speed of reducing emissions and increasing clean supply, really focussing on the end-game of “Zero Carbon Britain”, and as a shorter term tactical example, aiming to roll-out smart meters in 5 years not 10. However, having had not much more than a whiff of power for a long time, do they have credibility? Is there a risk that, like Tony Blair in ’97, if they do suddenly find themselves with the reins of power they may be so surprised that they won’t really know what to do with it? I also find their (negative) attitude towards nuclear power a little surprising – personally I feel that it’s probably an essential part of the mix until (and indeed if) we can build enough reliable renewable such as massive-scale tidal generation.


The Greens - what possible relevance can they have? Well, one could have said the same about the Lib Dems only weeks ago. And just as parity between Labour and Conservative has boosted the fortunes of the LibDems, perhaps so hung parliaments or even major political shifts such as PR, might see the Greens (or at least their ideas) gain some real power, as everyone scrabbles to forge alliances and the Greens find themselves the holders of the ideas that everyone wants to claim, having been on the right side of history. In countries like Germany the Greens have of course become a real political force, capturing 10% of parliamentary seats (vs 0% in the UK so far!).

True, there have been major inconsistencies within the party faithful, with factions resisting the very actions necessary to combat climate change, such as wind, tidal and nuclear generation, because of their potential impact on flora & fauna. But as the potential effects of climate change have become clear, the Greens seem to have come around to a relatively coherent agenda, at least on the topic of climate change, which, if you’re still with me, you’ll remember is my single-issue!

Tactical voting

So, bearing all of the above in mind, how should I vote?

I could vote Green as a general “protest” vote on the environment. I know that it won’t affect the election of my MP, but maybe if enough people vote Green then it will influence my local MP when he seeks re-election.

Or I could vote Lib-Dem. Try to shake things up, increase the influence of their more ambitious environmental policies. But the results of stirring the pot are very unpredictable - a Lib-Lab pact might form, and - who knows – maybe Peter Mandelson will become our nation’s second consecutive unelected prime-minister.

But hang on, our local rag rather depressingly ran a story a few weeks ago entitled “your vote doesn’t count”, saying that the seats around Cambridge are all so "safe" that there’s very little chance of any change. Indeed in 2005 in South Cambs, our local Conservative MP won with 46% of the vote, the next closest being the Lib Dems with only 28%.

My local MP is Andrew Lansley, Conservative. A nice-enough chap, I’ve even seen him in action locally on issues I care about, and his home page has a new lead story on it about how he thinks Cambridge should be Britain’s first “eco city”. But (and forgive me a little cynicism here!) it the kind of wonderful story which no-one could possibly disagree with - because there’s just no downside. It reminds me of the voting system in California which allows you not only to vote for particular candidates, but also to vote for particular policies. And of course the way that policies are described has a massive effect on the results: unsurprisingly policies were always described in terms like “vote for increasing education” rather than “vote for increasing taxes”.

Digging deeper into Lansley’s site, he does support the local council’s Cambridge Climate Change Strategy for climate change mitigation, based on the Nottingham Declaration on Climate change - but then so does everyone else!

The past being a good guide to the future, let’s look at his track-record on the excellent Publicwhip site. This allows me to see how my MP has voted on all votes on a particular topic. So if I look up the topic “Stop Climate Change”, I see that he has an impressive 97% agreement with votes on this subject.


So how am I going to vote? A radical green protest, a Lib-Dem stirring of the pot, a Labour vote to deliver on existing green policies, or a safe Conservative pat on the back? As Francis Urquhart said, “I couldn’t possibly comment”. But I can tell you one thing: as I sit down to watch them slug it out on TV tonight, I’ll be enjoying (and participating) on the excellent Slapometer site!

Friday, 26 March 2010

Earth Hour

Tomorrow, Saturday 27th March, at 8.30pm is Earth Hour.

Show that you care about climate change by switching your lights off for 1 hour.

Just a small change like switching off lights when you leave a room can make a difference.  If you turn off two 60 watt light bulbs that you normally leave on around the clock you can save £120 a year.

If every household in the UK did this, we could save just over half a tonne of Co2.

Here at AlertMe we will be switching our lights off. Will you?

Thursday, 18 March 2010

AlertMe named as New Energy Pioneer by Bloomberg

We're delighted to be able to let you know that Bloomberg New Energy Finances has named AlertMe in the Top 5 New Energy Pioneers worldwide.

The Pioneers programme has recognised AlertMe as a highly promising company in the new energy technology field. Bloomberg believe AlertMe will play a vital part in the transition to a lower carbon, smart energy system.

Bloomberg were impressed that AlertMe can not only demonstrate new technology but also show it working in real-life in customers homes today, helping them to see how much energy they're using and lower their energy bills right now.

Click here to learn more about Bloomberg's New Energy Pioneers.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Mary Turner joins AlertMe as CEO

We're all excited today to be able to share the news that Mary Turner has joined AlertMe as our new CEO (press-release here). AlertMe is now well into its commercial growth phase, and we've been seeking someone with the proven experience of leading consumer-focused businesses from entrepreneurial beginnings into massive commercial success. Mary is our dream candidate and I was over the moon when she said "Yes". As a founder, it's great to be able to mark this major "growing-up" milestone in the company's history, and to have found such an exceptional person to lead us forwards.

It's significant that Mary comes from the telecommunications world, where she played a major role in the telco revolution of the past 20 years or so. During that time telco has seen a) the freeing-up of the "local-loop" (you can now buy your broadband from anyone, not just BT), and b) increasingly rich, bundled services (you can now buy your fixed-line, your broadband, your TV and your mobile all from one service provider).

AlertMe is a key platform for driving a similar revolution in the Energy space - and indeed the gap between Energy and Telco is blurring fast. Increasingly, consumers are coming to see Energy less as a fixed, inevitable cost of owning/renting a home, and more as another household service just like broadband, mobile or TV - which can be understood, switched and bundled in the same way.

Vive la change!

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Google Opens Up PowerMeter API

In October AlertMe became the first European company to partner with Google PowerMeter. AlertMe gives consumers visibility and control of their energy consumption and enables consumers to view this information with Google PowerMeter. By providing the energy consumption data that PowerMeter relies on, AlertMe is one of the engines behind Google PowerMeter.

Last week, Google expanded the ecosystem around PowerMeter by introducing an API (application programming interface) which will allow developers to help people better understand their energy consumption and find additional ways to save energy. And of course all of these new add-on capabilities will be available to any AlertMe customers who opt into Google PowerMeter too.

We’re thrilled that Google released the API and hope that adoption of the API is widespread. This validates the importance of our partnership with Google and will help to increase adoption of online consumer home energy management. And we think that everyone should have access to their energy information to save money, avoid wasting energy and be good to the planet by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

If you’ve been waiting to try out AlertMe or Google PowerMeter, there’s no time like the present.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

AlertMe Customer Survey Winter 2009/2010

Is AlertMe good value for money?
We've just completed our Customer Survey. A big "thank you" to the hundreds of people who took the time to take part - giving us statistically meaningful results with which to guide the development of AlertMe as a service.

The graph on the left shows the answers to the question "Is AlertMe good value for money?". We also asked questions about usefulness, reliability, and (the acid test) - "Would you recommend us to a friend?" And to that, a whopping 96% of respondents said they either would or have done so - hooray!).

You'll find the answers to that and many more questions detailed in our summary of the results here.

Would you recommend AlertMe to your friends?

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Close the Door!

Close the Door is a Cambridge-based group that campaigns for shops to, as the name suggests, keep their doors closed to save energy. Many shops operate an 'open door' policy as they feel it is more welcoming for their customers. However during particularly hot or cold weather keeping the shop at a comfortable temperature with the doors open can lead to enormous energy waste.

Research by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution shows that retailers use almost double the amount of energy annually per square metre that factories and offices do, with retailers using on average 460 kilowatt hours (kWh) in comparison to only 292 kWh for factories and 252 kWh for commercial offices.

Making matters worse many retailers are in fact over-heating their premises. 18°C is the ideal shopping temperature, as recommended by the Chartered Institute for Building Services Engineers, but Make It Cheaper found that the average temperature in shops on London’s Oxford Street was a staggering 23.6°C. The research conducted in the freezing temperatures of December last year found that only 6 out of 100 shops surveyed had their doors closed in spite of the freezing weather.

AlertMe is being used to conduct some scientific research by Close the Door on the effects of leaving shop doors open. The research aims to identify just how much energy is wasted and how much extra money it costs to heat (or cool) a shop with the doors open compared with keeping them closed. The experiment began this month with two shops in Cambridge and we look forward to sharing the results with you soon.

Read more about the impact of closing the door and retailers can sign up for the Close the Door campaign now.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

What if science is trying to save us?

I'd like to tell you a joke:
The land was struck by a tremendous flood. Everyone escaped to higher ground, but a vicar found himself stuck on the roof of his house. A man in a boat came by and said "Come on Father, get in my boat and I'll row you to safety". "Oh, no thank you -- God will save me!" said the vicar. Next, a helicopter flew overhead and a rope ladder was lowered. "Climb up, and we'll fly you to safety". Again, the vicar declined: "No thanks. God will save me!"

Eventually, the waters rose above the roof of the vicar's house and he drowned. When he arrived in heaven he sought an audience with God and complained "Why didn't you save me?" God replied: "I sent a boat and a helicopter... What more did you want?
One of the responses that I often hear to the threat of climate change is "science will save us". Unfortunately, like the vicar on the roof of his house, I fear that these people are failing to notice that science is trying to help us right now: scientists are telling us that we must reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to below 350 parts per million, and we must keep the increase in global temperature to below 2 degrees.

We as consumers can contribute to this. We are each personally responsible for our own carbon footprint, and if we don't all reduce the amount of greenhouse gas we are responsible for emitting (by consuming electricity, gas, petrol and consumer goods), the science will not be able to save us.

One of the difficulties for us as consumers is that we just don't know how big our carbon footprint is, or how we can reduce it, and therefore what we can do to help. Systems like AlertMe provide people with a way to monitor and understand their own personal contribution to the impact on the environment, and thus what they can do to reduce that impact.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

What's the antidote to being over-connected?

I must be getting old and intolerant, or maybe I just got out of bed on the wrong side today, but I find the news that the UK National Grid (which distributes gas and electricity across the nation) has just issued its second ever "Gas Balancing Alert" rather depressing. Not so much about the immediate risks, but about what it implies about how we are organising ourselves.

We had a small amount of snow just before Christmas, and now it has snowed again. Not amazing amounts - just a foot or so. It's been slightly colder than normal, for slightly longer, in a "once every few years" kind of a way. Certainly not a "once in a lifetime" or "once in a millenium" kind of a way. And yet the nation's gas supplies have run low to the point where industrial users are told to stop consuming until we can import more gas from abroad, to preserve the gas for consumers - presumably so that grannies across the country don't die of hypothermia.

On the roads, there is concern about whether stores of grit and salt will last, and talk of whether "production will meet demand". Salt is just about the cheapest commodity there is. It doesn't go off. Why not stockpile mountains of the stuff in strategic locations around the country? Same with gas. I'm sure that building more gas storage would cost something, but as an insurance policy, surely a negligible amount per person compared to the human cost of running out - and probably the financial cost too.

It's almost as though it's a crime to save (sound familiar?). The "cost of capital" is king, and to hell with the risks. Put another way, we seem to be trying to run the country in a lean "just in time" kind of a way - which is no way to run a country, as the consequences of the whole nation's supply-chain failing are not just financial, they could be catastrophic for our society.

We're fortunate to live in a place and time where the three basic domestic services - electricity, gas and water - are extremely reliable. But that good-fortune has made us complacent. As individuals and communities, we expect and utterly depend on them, to the point of not thinking about them at all. Less than a hundred years ago, it was normal for local communities to have local stores of wood, coal, oil, and even acetylene (for lighting, before the electricity grid reached all parts of the country), and to plan ahead, managing those stores. But now, as a side-effect of nationalising our services, we have removed the local storage, and are dependent on whatever storage is available at a national level, on the grid. And that is a dangerous thing to do, because it makes the network very "brittle". If an event happens in just one part of the network, that's fine, the grid can rebalance. But if everyone across the national network experiences the same event (e.g. snow), then the entire network requires national-sized reserves to survive the shock. And the substantial failure of one network could quickly cause knock-on effects which bring down others, bringing civilisation to its knees. We now generate a lot of our electricity from gas, for example.

Stuart Kauffman, a founder of complexity theory, revealed how the "connectedness" of any network has profound effects on its overall behaviour. "Network" in this case can be any collection of things that work together: genes in an organism, computers on the internet - or individuals in a society. He found that although obviously a network needs some connectivity in order to function, there is such a thing as too much connectivity - with everything connected to everything else, everything starts behaving the same, and the network can "crystallise" into a single homogenous lump, losing many of the benefits that come from having looser connections. Our society has recently been increasing its connectivity at an amazing rate - and its time we thought about the consequences.

Buffering (local storage) is good. Diversity is good. Redundancy (having a spare) is good. These are qualities of an optimally-connected network, and they all contribute to the overall network's ability to survive adverse events. In an over-connected network you tend to lose these benefits, and that's where we seem to have got to today. We're all in the same boat, and we've carefully balanced it an inch above the water-line.

Energy security, like food security, is life-or-death stuff, it's not to be taken lightly. So what should we do to improve our resilience?

We should intentionally restore the qualities we have lost: Adding Buffering by placing sufficient storage, ideally spaced around the grid, and adding Diversity and Redundancy through moving to a mix of energy sources: wind, solar, hydro and (especially in the UK) tidal.

Another useful contribution (though not a panacea in its own right) is local generation, using domestic microCHP and solar PV to generate electricity. So it's interesting to see that feed-in tariffs are finally coming to the UK in April. The final terms are not yet public, but the government is going to guarantee that, for a fixed period (20 years?), all electricity generated will get paid-for at a rate which turns local generation into an attractive investment (e.g. 36p per unit instead of the current 5p) . "Better late than never" I say - we're more than a decade behind many other countries on this - even Iran already feed-in tariffs! This will certainly help accelerate the move towards grid-parity, which is where the cost of locally-generated electricity matches the cost of centrally-generated. And once we're there, then we'll be a lot more resilient against foreign oil prices, gas supply interruptions - and snow (free brush supplied with every installation!).

Another way to increase resilience is to devolve more of the responsibility for infrastructure out to local level, so that planning and storage is taken as a local responsibility, to avoid the "someone else's problem" effect. It's particularly interesting to see grass-roots examples of this springing-up, for example Transition Towns.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Christmas Energy

At AlertMe, we were wondering what impact Christmas would have on the energy consumption of the nation with all that TV watching, Christmas tree lighting and turkey roasting. Luckily, the Swingometer lets us find out.

The Swingometer was firmly in the red leading up to Christmas with higher energy usage than usual, probably due to the cold weather and snow.

It was no surprise that Christmas day continued the trend, with the UK using significantly more energy than on a typical Thursday.

Looking at the animated heat-map below, you can see a huge decrease in energy consumption in London at Christmas (this is shown as London going green in the map). Presumably a lot of Londoners left the city to visit family over the festive season. Then, on the 3rd of January the usage in London leapt back into the orange, indicating that people had returned home ready to go back to work.

Happy New Year from all at AlertMe!