VergeCON London

Two weeks ago I went to VergeCON London a conference that brings together people from different background to discuss the convergence of sustainability, technology, transportation and cities. It was a great event because of the opportunity to have discussions with people from such diverse backgrounds (science, non-profit & industrial).

Opening Keynote and panel

The opening keynote and panel focused on some of the big challenges we will face creating a more sustainable infrastructure. Unlike IT, changes to our energy system, buildings and transport infrastructure are long-term – the existing grid for example took over 50 years to build. More and more IT will make our infrastructure smarter but will also inevitably add more complexity.

Sustainability is not something business can ignore – as highlighted by the fact that over recent months many of the world’s biggest corporations had to restate earnings based on raw material prices. To make sustainability work in large corporations requires system thinking, busting silos, bridge building and radical efficiency. The challenge is even bigger for cities. New cities were described as “fun but not relevant”, as the majority of us live in old cities that will need to make dramatic transformations. Some US cities now have chief innovation officers to help make these changes.

Interactive sessions

There were 2 interactive sessions during the day. The first one was an “introduce yourself to your table” session and a great way to get to know other conference attendees. The second session split the attendees into areas of interest. I joined a session with some of the guys from Navetas about energy management. The consensus was that energy monitors are very useful initially but once the you had learnt where your big energy losses are the novelty wears off and they often get stuck in a cupboard somewhere. Current energy monitors designs are very geeky and don’t communicate well to ordinary people. What may be lacking from energy management and home automation solutions is completeness. We have a collection of bits that don’t add up to a full solution that can intelligently manage the energy in the home.

One great idea

Rather than have long 1 hour talks, there were several short One Great Idea TED style talks. Here were some of my highlights:

AlertMe – Get some energy visibility!

Pilgrim Beart from AlertMe gave a really entertaining talk (using a couple of bags full of plastic balls) about where the energy use in your house goes. The key point: there is a bubble of ignorance about energy use due to a lack of visibility. Home energy monitors/displays can help reduce that usage by 8%. Even bigger gains can be made by tackling heating. Pilgrim has saved hundreds of pounds a year by using a more efficient shower head and intelligent thermostats like the ones provided by Wattbox can yield saving of 15%.

Whipcar

Vinay Gupta from WhipCar gave a good talk on their car sharing startup. I don’t drive but I found this an interesting story of how sharing enabled by the web is taking off in a big way. Whipcar have created a hyper local service where in London where you are never more than 10 minutes walk away from a potential rental car. We have an excess capacity of cars and people view them as an assets that is losing money when not in use. The demographics of people using the service are mainstream (mid 30s) both on the supply and demand side. The hard part of building such a service was assessing the risk of the people who sign up and providing around the clock support in case something goes wrong.

Sustainability at Microsoft

Josh Henretig from Microsoft talked about how their initiative to become carbon neutral this year. I was surprised how much I enjoyed this talk and it is definitely inspiring me to push the same idea at Forward. To improve building efficiency they are using big data techniques to give building managers insight into what improvements to take. To offset the energy usage of their data centres they have made big investments in renewables. When staff fly their business units are now charged a carbon price.

Closing keynote

A fitting closing keynote came from John Elkington who talked about his new book The Zeronauts. His core message was that we need some unreasonable people to start building business that have zero environmental impact to really push sustainability.

Building a solar panel from recycled materials

I went to a fun workshop in Brixton last weekend on making photovoltaic solar panels from recycled and scrap materials. I spent a fair chunk of last year at work building the Solar panel section of the uSwitch website so I was quite curious to get down and dirty with the physical technology.

Also, I was totally fascinated by the workshop’s title. Where the hell would recyclable solar panel materials come from? The answer: typically the solar cells are manufactured in China and shipped to Europe, but they are fragile so a substantial proportion of them get damaged in transit. The damaged cells can then be bought by the kilogram as pricey scrap. The rest of the solar panels is made up of old windows, bits of plywood and a couple of random bits and bobs from the DIY shop.

We split up into four groups during the workshop and built a panel per group. Luckily there were some people in my group with more DIY experience than me. There was a wide range of people from different backgrounds at the workshop and it was really interesting chatting and working with everybody. I have written a rough outline of the process below. If you want to actually build one yourself I would strongly recommend the Demand Energy Equality site for more detailed and reliable instructions. I accept no liability for anyone trying this at home!

Grouping similarly sized solar cells

Even thought the cells are damaged they can still generate electricity roughly proportional to their size. You need to group several cells of similar sizes to make a panel. All the cells should be roughly the same size as the output capacity of the entire panel is limited to the output of the smallest cell on the panel. These cells are placed on a big sheet of plywood.

Connect the panels with tabbing wire

Next up you need to connect the cells together with tabbing wire. This involved some soldering of the tabbing wire to the individual cells. I hadn’t done any soldering in about 20 years, but aside from a burn or two it was fun. After the wire has been soldered on some transparent silicon needs to be spoldged over the soldered area to prevent galvanic corrosion. Then a slightly larger metal buss wire is run underneath the bottom row of cells.

Finishing touches

To keep the cells in place you dab some cheap silicon sealant (normally used for bath tubs) around the cells. You then hammer a nail (!) through the buss bar. Cover the whole thing with a old window and you are (mostly) done!

The finished panel

Some thoughts

I really enjoyed the workshop:

  • Making things with your hands is great. I definitely felt I was using different parts of my brain then usual in the workshop.
  • After playing with raw solar cells I now feel they can be assembled and used in more interesting and varied ways than just the standard rectangular bank of cells.
  • I’m no longer scared of soldering, which is great as I suspect I might be sticking a few Arduino type devices together this year.
  • It was good to hear some different viewpoints on the Feed in Tariff (FIT).
  • I found out about the really cool Brixton Energy project.
  • The panels cost about 1/4 of the commercial equivalent, but obviously require some effort to build and maintain. Additionally, you may not get the FIT. At the moment I am still undecided about whether I want to build my own or not.