Tag Archives: power

What’s behind a scary number?

A recent BBC article is entitled “Electric cars: Best and worst places to charge your car”.

Extract:

The government has published new league tables showing which regions of the UK have the most charging points for drivers of electric vehicles. The most per 100,000 people are in London, followed by Scotland, while Yorkshire is the worst by that measure.
Outside London, Orkney and Milton Keynes have the most. But Barrow-in-Furness and Scilly each have none.

There’s a nice map showing the current state of play.

A bit later, though, the article starts to introduce some rather worrying numbers:

The government wants the UK to have net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Scottish Power estimates that in order to achieve this, the UK needs to have 25 million charging points for electric vehicles – the equivalent of installing 4,000 a day – and 23 million electric heat pumps to replace domestic gas boilers.

Mmm.

This is a topic of great interest to me, and the underlying data is useful, but the article is somewhat flawed almost from the start. The first thing to notice is that it never distinguishes between public and private charging points. In fact, if you look at the source, the league table is talking about public charging points, where Scottish Power are talking about public and private ones.

Nonetheless, it is indeed a lot of charging points, though the article’s second error is in ascribing the figure of 4000 installations per day to car chargers: in fact the numbers are about 2000 each for chargers and for heat pumps.

Then they hammer home the size of the challenge with this:

And all at a cost of nearly £300bn.

Wow! Another big and scary number. How on earth are we ever going to do this?

But let’s think about it for a moment…

Many numbers are not quite so scary when you consider them rationally and in context.

25 million is approaching the current number of households in the UK, and, yes, if we don’t have petrol vehicles, most people will probably want to charge their cars at home. That’s also why the heat-pump number is on a similar scale.

But remember, we’re talking about a target which is 30 years away.

According to this article, the UK installed 1.7 million new boilers in 2018! This makes sense, if you think about it: how many households are there, and how long does a boiler last? If that rate continued, then between now and 2050, 51 million new boilers would have been installed anyway.

Switching to heat pumps may be slightly more involved, but it sounds a bit more plausible now. And installing charging points only needs to happen at half the rate of central heating boiler replacement!

But that, of course, does not make for such enticing journalism.

Wait, though – what about that enormous £300-billion cost?

Well, there are about 70 million people in the UK, and that cost will be spread over 30 years. So that’s £142 per person per year, or about 39p per person per day.

Would you pay that for a carbon-neutral future? I would!

Let’s get on with it!

Hot at the top

This is a lovely idea – the Mixergy hot water tank.

A standard UK hot water tank heats the water from the bottom, either using electricity or water heated by a gas boiler. This means that when you want to heat up your water, you need to heat the whole thing.

Mixergy, instead, put the heating at the top, so you can warm up smaller amounts of water, and then make intelligent use of pumps to circulate it as required if you need to heat larger amounts of water. Not only is this more energy-efficient, but it means you get hot water again more quickly after you’ve used it up.

There’s a more detailed discussion on a recent episode of Fully Charged.

Proulx, Plutonium and a sense of Proportion

There’s a wonderful scene in the movie version of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, where Kevin Spacey’s character, Quoyle, is being taught how to be a journalist by Billy, an experienced old hack on the local paper. They are sitting in a car on the Newfoundland coast.

    Billy: Now, have a look. What do you see? Tell me the headline.

    Quoyle: Horizon Fills with Dark Clouds?

    Billy: IMMINENT STORM THREATENS VILLAGE!

    Quoyle: But what if no storm comes?

    Billy: VILLAGE SPARED FROM DEADLY STORM.

I keep wondering whether this is an appropriate analogy for the reporting of the events in Fukushima. As far as we can tell on the best information available, this is not going to be anything like another Chernobyl, but even Chernobyl needs to be kept in proportion.

The worst disaster in the entire nuclear industry resulted in 56 direct deaths; a number comparable to a bad bus crash on a motorway. More serious, of course, were the after-effects of the radiation, and estimates of the effect vary widely, but the most-quoted figure suggests that around 4000 cancer victims can trace their illness back to Chernobyl. This is, of course, a disaster on a major scale, but it is also very close to the number of people who die in coal mines in China each year. The official government statistic in 2004 – a bad year – was 6,027.

I fear that whatever happens in Japan, the impact on the world nuclear industry will be huge, and we will not be seeing many articles contemplating the likely fate of coal miners in the vicinity of a tsunami. Or of what it might mean to oil rigs – we already know what can happen to them even without the help of a massive earthquake.

There’s a simple reason for this not being the line taken by the media: such articles are much less exciting than the headline-grabbing alternatives. I think it was Cory Doctorow who said, “You must never forget the fundamental business model of most newspapers: to deliver large numbers of readers to advertisers”.

We do not know what will happen in Japan – it may prove be a major disaster, or it may – rather literally – just blow over. But if it’s the latter, don’t worry – I bet we’ll still see some good headlines along the lines of Billy’s for quite a while afterwards.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser