Warmer winters brings change to the face of London

thermoIt should come as no surprise to anyone to hear that the concerns over ‘global warming’ continue to drive much of the medias attention, not to mention many column inches of digital and physical print.

However, despite the continuing slew of scientific data, it is often something very local which brings the situation into sharper focus.

The fact that temperatures have been rising over the past forty years is now largely undisputed. However, there is still some disagreement as to the extent of human responsibility for the  phenomena. Some (significantly few in number) scientists maintain that global warming has still to be proven. Others take a view that the human species is entirely responsible. A third group consider that cycles in climate change (periodic warming and cooling) are part of the natural cycle of the planet with the question being how much have we exacerbated the current warming cycle.

Whichever school of thought is correct, a walk through Warwick Gardens in south London earlier today produced two examples of the change being experienced in the area and the country more generally.

green tempWhatever the cause, statistical analysis of the nearest weather station to the location (Greenwich) shows that the average winter temperature for the area has risen to somewhere between 7 and 8 degrees in the period 1980 to 2000.

This is an increase of some 2 degrees over the average temperature in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Undoubtedly physical factors such as greater housing stock, more concentrated heating play a part locally. However, this wouldn’t account for the similar rises seen across London and the southern parts of England.

Whatever the cause, it is difficult to expect such a change to have no impact on the local flaura and fauna. It was one of those changes I noticed earlier today.

Six months ago (how is that possible), I was lucky enough to spend Christmas and the New Year near Melbourne. One of the significant differences between Australlia and the UK being the indiginous wildlife. You can imagine my surprise when I heard a sound I had not heard since my visit.


Green Parrots in Peckham

The persistent and chattering screeches I heard led me to two trees within the park where after some close examination, I found a group of green parrots. After a few minutes of observation, it was clear there were around 20 parrots actively defending an established territory.

These are certainly not native species but were thriving in south London. Of course, there have always been ‘lost’ parrots, parakeets or similar exotic species. However, I remember from childhood that these losses were exceptional with the expectation that the winter would kill off any birds remaining unfound.

It is certainly the case that more have been managing to survive the British winter. Indeed University of Oxford studies have shown that parrot populations in London have increased by nearly 30% per year over the past five years. Similarly, local BBC reports show an increasing number of established exotic parrot populations. One factor in this growth is the generally milder weather allowing increased numbers to successfully over winter.

The second indicator wasn’t the bird, but the trees in which they were found. London is often thought of as an urban jungle and in one sense it is. London is in fact the largest urban forest in the world with still over 40% of London being classed as open space of one kind or another.


London Plane Tree

When thinking of trees in London a few iconic species spring to mind, perhaps sycamore, oak, ash or lime trees. All have signficant representation across the city. Probably few people think of the less glamorous London Plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia). However, it is probable that this tree has had more impact than any other on life in London.

First identified as a natural hybrid in Vauxhall (southern London) in the 1600’s the first plantings were in the well to do areas of the time. Some amazing older specimens still exist in Berkely Square (although now long devoid of the anticipated nightingales).

However, the tree came into its own with the massive population growth in the capital during the 1850’s. The choice was not only for the shade the broad leafs gave, nor just for its ability to tolerate drought and water shortages. It was due to an ability of this amazing tree to act as a ‘green lung’ fighting the growing polution problem of the time.

barkSome particularly clever Victorians noticed the bark of the London Plane had a clever adaptation to survive in more poluted environments. Gradually, the polutants would be absorbed by the bark of the tree (left) which would become mottled with pieces shedding with the captured polutants to reveal new clean bark. This process continues for the lifetime of the tree. Many in London are now approaching 280 years of age and are showing no signs of slowing down their cleaning cycle.

However, as a relatively new hybrid, it appears that those warmer winters may also threatening a gradual decline in the species. The Forestry Commission and English Heritage report increasing infection by a fungus which has previously not been able to survive British winters and as a result didn’t get a hold of the London plane.

The prospect for this particular tree still looks relatively bright. Although the fungus is damaging it can be controlled if spotted early enough. The trick (according to the Forestry Commission) is to start looking for diseases that would previously be unheard of in the UK.

Whatever the truth of global warming and whether this has exacerbated climate change it is certain that changes are taking place now. It should be encumbant on all of us to look out for these. Whatever your view on the climate science, the speed of change is faster than many species can adapt to in the short term. I can’t help but wonder whether I should be pleased for spotting these two, or asking how many others must have passed me by unseen?

Does the new UK Drugs Bill owe more to Chicago or to Rome ?

QueenieIn this weeks Queens speech details of a new Bill to tackle the growing availability of ‘legal highs’ was outlined.

At present, numerous ‘head shops’ and on line suppliers are able to offer chemical substances which sit just outside the current legal definition of a controlled substance. They do this by manufacturing a substance subtly different to those already outlined (perhaps one or two molecules different) and in doing so defeat the current legislation.

This cat and mouse creation, classification and banning has been the status quo in the UK for a number of years. As one chemical is being banned chemists are already working on the next two replacements. The Bill proposes a radically different approach to tackling this problem. But can the government expect a rough trip in introducing it ?

lhighI suspect any objective observer (regardless of their view on drugs) would be concerned with the growth of legal highs within the UK over the past ten years.

The vast majority of these compounds are developed and made in China, their exact content is often unclear and obviously there is no certainly of the quality of the alleged ingredients. They undoubtedly present a risk to some particularly when mixed with other substances, alcohol and/or poor judgement.

The growth in online suppliers and the emergence of ‘head shops’ in the UK specialising in their sale has been remarkable, particularly over the past 5 years. Most of the compounds are clearly marked not for human consumption and are sold as plant foods, household chemicals, fish food or bath salts. The range of potential uses reported is quite remarkable. They have now become so commonplace that most towns have at least one outlet with the alternative of delivery by post available via the internet.

ProfnuWhilst there have undoubtedly been deaths caused by legal highs, former governmental drugs advisor Prof. David Nutt believes these have been overstated.

His research indicates that recorded figures have erroneously included deaths caused by substances already illegal in the UK as well as compounds such as anabolic steroids which are not psychoactive.

Professor Nutt claims the figures actually indicate deaths from legal highs in the range of 12 to 20 cases per annum. Whilst these are clearly each personal tragedies and a huge waste of life and potential, does this level of fatality justify the change in approach being proposed by the new legislation. Certainly a question worth considering. This is particularly true when these are measured against the estimated 3,000 deaths caused by alcohol and the 20,000 caused by tobacco each year in the UK. Ironically, both alcohol and tobacco  have been specifically excluded from the proposed legislation.

So what is so different about the new legislative approach when contrasted to the existing Misuse of Drugs Act 1971? In simple terms this can be summarised in one word – specificity.

At present substances are banned by name or by drug class meaning that anything outside those classifications is lawful. The new approach seeks to turn this model on its head by stating that (in terms) any mind altering or psychoactive substance will be unlawful with certain exclusions.

prohibitionUnfortunately, history is not replete with examples of prohibition being an effective tool to reduce the demand of elicit substances of which governments disapproved.

Chicago in the 1920’s is perhaps the best known example when alcohol prohibition pushed supply into the hands of Al Capone and assorted criminal gangs. The supply was not significantly reduced with the speakeasy being a means of circumnavigating the law and continuing to provide alcohol through a chain of underground ‘coffee shops’.

The government of the time persisted with the total prohibition of alcohol until social pressures and the risk of the government being seen as a laughing stock overtook events and the ban was lifted, replaced instead with a series of legislatively backed licensing approaches.

Medical professionals in the UK have not been slow to spot the parallels, here Dr Christian Jessen debates the likely impact of imposing such a blanket ban in the UK without considering the implications on those drafting and enforcing the law.

Few people would argue that Governments have a legitimate interest and right to protect its citizens (at least its vulnerable citizens) and this legislation could be seen as falling into that category of action. So has Britain any lessons to learn from other countries who have taken this path before them? The answer would appear to be yes, but so far it has chosen to ignore them.

raveThe United States had a similar issue at the height of the rave craze of the 1980’s and passed a similarly wide ranging Act (Federal Analogue Act 1986).

That law criminalised any substance that was ‘substantially similar’ to a controlled drug if it was designed for human consumption.  It automatically banned the compound if its effects were ‘similar to or greater than’ a drug that has already been made illegal’.

The issue with the American Act is (I would suggest) the same as this broad brush UK Bill would face. Most half competent lawyers could demolish such imprecise phrasing as ‘substantially similar’ and who is to say whether any drug has a similar or greater effect than another on you, me or anyone else?

Both Poland and Ireland have also introduced similarly prohibitive legislation, although both find themselves fighting cases revolving around the definition of words and re-drafting the legislation – almost as many times as they would keeping up with new named substances.

Finally, the drafting of the final Act will be a poison chalice for some poor group of civil servants. At present the proposal would be to make any psychoactive substance or compound altering brain chemistry unlawful. Tne problem is that definition may simply be too broad to be workable.

p_saffron-bonbons_1659386cAs previously stated, alcohol and tobacco have been excluded, however, substances as noxious and harmful as chocolate, saffron and sage could fall within the relevant definition.

Initial responses from the government lawyers is to simply exclude foodstuffs. – Really? How long before those same chemists come up with some ‘foodstuffs’ to circumvent this particular piece of legislation?

Some clinical psychologists also argue that many non-chemical items can be classed as mind altering substances, at least they are designed (and can achieve) a change in brain chemistry.

The whole history or propaganda is based on the aim of changing the mind state. Few would argue that the racier forms of literature or selected DVD’s can also induce similar reactions. Presumably these aren’t included in the same legislation despite probably fitting the rather loose definitions being suggested.

portugalI for one would urge governments and legislators to engage in a long overdue adult and rational debate on drugs policy in the UK.  It would appear that it is a topic which cannot be discussed by the political classes.

Far from recommending or proposing any particular act or outcome, I would just like an evidence based assessment of the options looking at the experience of other approaches. I would certainly like to see the Portuguese model examined objectively and compared to our current paradigm.

All in all, whilst supporting the aim of protecting the vulnerable from the unwanted impacts of drug use, I’m uncertain this approach is the best way to achieve that outcome.

One thing I am fairly sure about is that the current position that everything is lawful until it’s made unlawful is all things considered a healthy starting point. It is what our legal system has been based on for centuries and has much to recommend it. I for one would not rush to the legal approach of ancient Rome where all was illegal until it was made legal – something these proposals come perilously close to doing.

Structure v Spontaniety: The beauty of the unplanned

SerendipityIn my more pretentious teenage years, I briefly created a word of the week club. This meant I (along with a small number of equally annoying personalities) would slip an archaic or otherwise little used word into conversation where possible over the course of that week.

After a promising start, it fell into terminal decline after an unfortunate incident with the word oleaginous. However, as a one off blast from the past, today’s blog post is brought to you by the little heard and often under-rated noun ‘Serendipity’

One of the most challenging and ultimately depressing documentaries I have seen in recent years was a piece entitled ‘nurturing your child in the hothouse‘. This looked at the importance of providing structure to high potential teenagers in order that they might fulfill their identified promise. Apart from my hostility to the idea that an individuals potential could be evaluated at the age of 14, I continued watching.

LifePlanDuring the broadcast a number of teenagers (past and present) subject to this nurturing approach were introduced. One thing they had in common was a high level of planning.

One young man now attending university had the next year scheduled including the point at which he would propose, when he would be promoted in his career and how many times per week he would go to the cinema. The idea that this level of structured planning might be unrealistic, overdone or even unhelpful was dismissed as a non issue.

Psychologists have long recognised the tension between structure and spontaniety. Many also believe that planning to the lowest level is likely to result in unrealistic and potentially unachievable goals. Some commentators believe this could account for the high and rising levels of anxiety and depression amongst university students. Whilst bringing structure and shape to a day is important when dealing with conditions such as anxiety or depression, it can be overdone. Both the British and American Association of Psychologists suggest short term structure, longer term objectives and avoid planning for things you cant control.

Far from recognising (or at least acknowledging) those risks, those on the hyper planning side of the debate dismissed the concern saying if someone left university unprepared for life they simply hadn’t started to prepare early enough. Some are working fairly intensively with youngsters of 11 and 12 and their family mapping out their future educational path, career and life trajectory. If that is the alternative, I for one would rather be a ‘failure’.

butThis approach to structure and mapping out your future focused on those just about to transition from university to work. However, I’ve seen the same all consuming dependency on structure in those chasing their next promotion or achieving a change in lifestyle.

I certainly don’t criticise those who have ambition and work to achieve their goals, but so many spend so much time doing this they fail (in my humble opinion) to enjoy the moment. Something it has taken me long enough to work out for myself.

In stark contrast, American author Deepack Chopra stresses the importance of spontaniety in our lives. He describes is as providing ‘the exquisite freedom of the unexpected’

I’m all for spontaniety myself, but the problem is (with deliberate irony) there’s a time and a place for it. How many of us can simply decide to do something on whim without considering work, money, existing commitments and the normal demands and responsibilities life places on us?

VWThat said, when I think of the best things in my life they all stem from a spontanious decision. I recently spoke to my partner about how we first met. What scared me was the odds were so heavily stacked against  it ever happening.

We lived 80 miles apart, both made seperate spontaneous decisions to attend the same event and happened to end up at the same place at the same time. Then I noticed he needed rescuing from a rather persistent deaf admirer and I happened to be able to sign (following another spontanious decision to learn some years earlier). We started talking and I met someone I now can’t imagine living without. Pure unexpected, unplanned and glorious chance. If anyone is able to estimate the odds of that encounter please don’t. I would rather remain blissfully ignorant of that fact.

So as with all things it would seem that a healthy midway point may be the optimum position and that is where in my experience the unexpected can take you by surprise.

From first hearing the word (long before I knew what it meant) in an episode of Dr. Who I have been taken by the idea of serendipity. Variously defined as ‘fortunate happenstance’ or ‘findng something good without looking for it’ this is always an indicator that I’m getting that balance about right.

luckMuch has been written on whether this is just coincidence or whether people who seem to experience these happy accidents are doing something(s) in common.

From studies published in the US and UK, five strands seem to be common behaviours for people reporting frequent moments of serendipity. For myselt, I’m certainly working on them to a greater or lesser extent so was pleased to see they rang true for me. The five common behaviours are:

1. Make time to do something random

The brain, mental faculties and general welbeing seem to respond well to new situations. Falling into a routine can simply reduce the opportunities for new experiences and contacts.

2. Don’t always flock with birds of a feather

As tribal animals, it’s natural for us to gravitate to groups and people with whom we feel comfortable. It appears from research that those who are less tribal and mix with a wider demographic report a higher rate of ‘happy accidents’

3. Don’t be frightened of going slow

Many people struggle with their own company. However, it appears the group in this study are more likely to be comfortable with some time alone. More reported an interest in meditation, mindfulness or similar methods of raising self awareness

4. Be unpredictable and challenge yourself from time to time

When compared to the control group against which they were measured, more were likely to challenge themselves with something that was outside of their normal comfort zone.

5. Keep an open mind

Most subjects in the study scored more highly in their ability to keep an open mind, limit behaviour based on stereotypes and to consider mutiiple views on a subject

How much truth there is in the research I don’t know, but it has sparked my interest enough to work on a couple of the items in that list just a little bit harder. Whether you are a deep planner or go with the flow, I wish you a healthy dose of serendipity.

Has traditional Government run its natural course?


Much has changed in the 170 years since Charles Barry was successful with his competition entry to redesign the Houses of Parliament. The current buildings replaced the previous Parliamentary structures destroyed by fire in 1834.

The subsequent reconstruction of the embankments in the Victorian era may have done much to improve the tidal flow, flooding risk and sanitation of Westminster. However, it has done little to solidify the very ground on which the Palace of Westminster was built. Subsidence is already a known risk within parts of Parliament square, so much so that Big Ben is already leaning 18 inches from the perpendicular. The £1 billion pound bill likely to save the building could keep the Palace standing, however, it may be a metaphor for some of the deeper challenges facing the institution of Government itself.


Wolfie Smith: Power to the people

For those who can remember uk tv comedies of the 1970’s, one political war cry probably stands out above any other, that of Citizen (Wolfie) Smith with his promise of ‘Power to the People’. A rather harmless and underwhelming anarchist type who felt power should be returned from Central Governments (of all colours) and vested in the local man on the street.

At the time the the British Government was drawn from one of the two dominant parties swapping between Conservative and Labour. Devolution of any kind to Scotland and Wales was wishful thinking at best. Given this, it was hardly surprising that the rise of people power and localism against national governments was seen as little more than an unattainable pipe dream.

In the intervening years, significant changes to the structures and manner of government have taken place. In the  1970’s Britain was part of what was then the European Economic Community (EEC). At the time, the EEC was a smaller body consisting of nine member states. It’s focus was at that time the formation of a ‘common market’ across its members. Putting the political merits of ever closer union to one side, the EEC of the 1970 had few aspirations to undertake supra-national governance. The weight of EU directives (whether you agree with them or not) simply wasn’t of the same scale in the mid 70’s. Regardless of how well it did them, the role of Parliament and the job of government was wider at that time.

Add to this the introduction of unitary authorities in the 1980’s and some of the responsibilities exercised by ministers and whitehall have left Parliament to their respective local authorities. On top of this significant powers have been passed to the Scottish government and Welsh Assembly. All in all, this represents a significant shift of ownership from the days of 1970’s central ministry control.

Ballot Paper

Ballot Paper

One electoral and representational mechanism has also seen a rise in popularity (certainly in parts of Europe) over the same period. The rise of the referendum has been quite noticable in the UK, a jurisdiction where referenda was traditionally seen as something of a failure in Parliamentary democracy by some.

In recent years, referenda have been held to consider subjects as varied as further devolution, and the voting system for general elections. Further promises have been made to take the public view on continued membership of the European  Union and the possibility of a futher devolution powers referendum in Wales.

Of course, the more referendums are held, the more the voting public get used to them and expect their voice to win sway on the most significant issues. Many European countries (including the UK) have legislative requirement for a referendum if changes to the existing European Union treaties are necessary. Similarly, the republic of Ireland has recently put the question of gay marriage to the popular vote.

Politicians who have regularly opposed referenda felt this introduction could pose a significant risk to the representational model used in the British Parliament. Traditionally, members of Parliament don’t feel compelled to echo the popular views of their constituency (unless it is high profile or their majority is wafer thin). Instead, the constituency elects an MP to make value judgements on their behalf. Some believe the growth of referenda may subtly change this emphasis and in doing so change the nature of Parliament and how Government works.

Digital Voting?

Digital Voting?

Perhaps one of the largest changes over the past thirty years has been the introduction of new technology along with its constant evolution. Surprisingly, one of the few areas it has addressed is elections and the counting of votes. However, serious money is being spent to test the viability of digital voting both for UK General elections and to encourage wider participation in the political process.

Digital voting has already been introduced for high profile events such as the Oscars as well as a number of US state elections. So far the results have been encouraging with results being almost instantaneously available with no issues over security of voting having been raised to date.

Campaign group WebRoots Democracy recenlt published a report in which they found that the introduction of online voting could boost turnout in a UK general election by nine million. Even if that is only half right that would be an unsurpassed achievement in improving political engagement.

The report also found that online voting in the UK could reduce the cost per vote by a third, saving taxpayers around £12.8m per general election. This would also significantly reducing the number of accidentally spoilt ballots, speed up the counting process, and enabling vision-impaired voters to cast a secret ballot for the first time. The report has been supported by the newly elected government who are proposing trials with a view to moving to digital elections as soon as practicable.

devolutionTodays Queens speach promised further devolution for Wales and demands for further powers to be granted to the Scottish Parliament soon followed. Whatever is decided in those debates what is clear is that the House of Commons is far from the powerhouse of democracy it was in the pre-war era.

Whilst no serious commentator would suggest that government is unecessary, what is increasingly clear is that the system and structures currently in place in the UK are becoming increasingly unfit for purpose having been overtaken by events.

It seems inevitable that some fairly major changes are likely to the way the component parts of the UK relate to each other. This is bound to have an impact on the style and feel of government. The current flavour of the month is a federal model of types with the Houses of Parliament being the Federal legislature dealing with UK wide issues such as defence and foreign policy. What seems to be certain is that the current status quo is likely to be a short term holding position.







Remembering the trotters of Peckham

Around 18 months ago, my better half informed me that he was considering a local move to the Camberwell/Peckham borders in London. At this point, I should point out that better half is one of those peculiarly British references to a partner. Mine has already been thrown by being referred to as ‘he who must be obeyed’ (in homage to John Mortimer), him indoors and perhaps less flatteringly the Mem’ Sahib. Trotters

That aside, when I was shown the location of the new house, it was clearly on the Peckham side of the border – only just, but definitively in Peckham. For people of a certain age in the United Kingdom, mention of Peckham can mean only one thing a yellow three wheeler van run and owned by Trotters Independent Traders. The BBC sit-com Only Fools and Horses was set in Peckham which had otherwise escaped much of the nations attention. Following the exploits of Del Boy and Rodney Trotter and set in Nelson Mandella House, the series set the perception of Peckham for a generation of people growing up in the eighties and early nineties in the UK. Ironically, the overwhelming majority of the series was filmed over 80 miles away in Bristol, but this didn’t stop views of Peckham being shaped.

However, I was pleasantly surprised at the variety and friendliness of this southern London borough. It certainly has a great sense of community and an even stronger history. It was one of those bits of history that introduced me to the original Peckham trotters.

peckhamfairI’ve been lucky enough to have my border collie Taz with me on recent visits and became interested in the street names on his walk to and from the park. In addition, there seemed to be a huge number of references to birds, such as the Pelican estate, teal house, mallard court and the like – most strage.

This set me off on a bout of local history research on the area. The first surprise was the fact that Peckham was once renowned for it’s fair. Now we all need to eat something and what could be better and cheaper (given the fair was commonly known as the poor man’s promenade) than a slow cooked juicy and protein packed pigs foot – The trotters of Peckham, the snack for which the fair was renouned. I can’t help but wonder whether this fact was known to the script writers back in the 80’s or whether this was just the first of a number of coincidences persisting across the years.

It’s a common comment in Peckham to say the place is packed with lawyers and psychiatrists. It’s also said in slightly more hushed tones that most of the residents are mainly their clients. However, despite this I couldn’t see any evidence of legal or medical influences on the street names – just road names like Vestry and Grummant. pelicanIt was further research into the Peckham fair which started to explain some of the peculiarities.

In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s the fair needed to attract visitors. Some of the larger fairs had caged wild or exotic animals on display. Peckham not being able to afford anything so glamorous took some of the cast offs that had a habit of being aggressive towards the punters – two pelicans.

Land at Peckham was granted by the local church to the rear of the vestry to house and rear a further number of pelicans. These didn’t get any friendlier with breeding and so many of the locals were pecked and attacked by the birds, the local verger, a John Grummant bought the land and immediately rid the area of the offending birds.

However, this left the area with some facilities to rear livestock which local labourers quickly filled by raising ducks. Strangely most of the local poultry was fairly mundane but the Peckham breeders chose to specialise in teal ducks. The fact this is approximatey the time the majority of the teal duck on the Serpentine went walkabout is, I’m sure, pure coincidence.


Teal Ducks (Mallard on the right)

So, with a little digging the local landscape suddenly began to make so much more sense with very little effort on my part. The centuries dropped away and the development of the area became so much clearer. The land originally used to raise the pelicans is now occupied by the Pelican estate and the Peckham pelican cafe. This also explains the duck related fixation in naming the estate blocks teal, mallard and coot etc.

It’s strange how the smallest amount of information can explain the neighbourhood and make you see it in an entirely different light. The last of the ironies only became apparent today while I was researching some unrelated subjects. There on the page were references to Lords Lyndhurst, Denman, and Selborne, and to Mr. Justice Talfourd. The names of the roads I walked to take Taz to the park.

It turns out they were all law Lords in the 19th century. So perhaps the comment about Peckham being full of lawyers goes back further than I had imagined. One final thought. If I’ve managed to find this out about an area I’ve grown to appreciate and enjoy – what could you learn about your own area? You may never see the place in the same light again.

Is a Plantagenet Queen responsible for my fuel bill?


Elizabeth Woodville (1437-1492)

Now before anyone screams at me, this isn’t an entirely serious posting (hard to believe I know). However, it did follow on from some thinking about the law of unintended consequences.

Yesterday’s post about renewable energy raised a few eyebrows among readers, particularly a couple of questions over the real time display of UK energy use by energy type. The dashboard display can be found at http://www.gridwatch.templar.co.uk However, be warned it’s highly addictive viewing.

So who, I hear you ask was Elizabeth Woodville and what has she got to do with UK energy demands and more specifically my fuel bill?

Well here comes the history bit (and the easiest part) first. Elizabeth Woodville was Queen of England between 1464 and 1483. She was the wife of Edward IV and the mother of the ‘Princes in the Tower’.allegedly killed by the infamous (and possibly much maligned) Richard III.

To understand the queries about the real-time use of energy in the UK and a former Queen’s part in contributing to my gas bill we should start by looking at a particularly British power usage anomaly – the tv pick-up. The nature of this strangely British quirk is explained in the following short video

For those who chose not to watch, this shows a spike in demand for power across the UK of some three thousand million watts. This only happens in the UK (to this extent) and occurs between the most popular soap operas. So – what on earth makes Britain unique in having to deal with sudden power surges between popular tv shows?

kettleThe National Grid put the effect down to two actions. Firstly millions of UK viewers using the advert break to put on the kettle for a very British cuppa. Shortly afterwards (following a fairly consistent gap) millions of fridge doors are simultaneously opened to allow a dash of milk to be added.

Whilst it is certainly true that ad breaks make convenient times to make a hot drink in places other than the UK, it is far more likely that the drink being made will be coffee. As we all know, coffee (particularly with the move from instant granules) is likely to be percolating constantly with no subsequent spike in demand for boiling water. So it appears that Britain’s love of Camellia sinensis (the tea plant) provides its own specific energy consequences.

Of course this perfect storm only matured with the arrival of television, electric kettles and a ready supply of running water which is some time after the introduction of tea into the country. However, it is the nation’s love of this particular beverage (with milk) that causes this unusual double whammy in demand not seen elsewhere.

Green tea was first introduced in the coffee houses of London (how ironic) in the 1660’s promising a cure all property for conditions ranging from gout to scurvy. However, at this time the Chinese valued the plant so highly that they would only exchange it for gold or silver.

The British government of the time started trading Opium brought in from Afghanistan and India in an attempt to secure the tea plant. In the process it secured some tea thanks to the services of Robert Fortune an early spy. As a side effect it also created tens of thousands of addicts and kicked off the Opium wars – worth pondering when you next fish a tea bag out of your cup.

milkteaThe plants taken from China were then introduced into India where the Brits found they also grew well. However, the traditional addition of lemon was not possible at the time so the Indian tea was taken with the addition of milk. So the second of those energy spikes is clearly down to the early colonisation of India and subsequent development of the Raj.

The first and bigger spike is down to the vast popularity of the drink in the UK and in large part that followed the introduction into the country of the leaves by the East India Company. Once it was presented to Charles II the social acceptability of drinking crushed up leaves steeped in hot water grew exponentially. So if the biggest fuel spike is a product of the East India company – who can we apportion blame to for that?

Well (we’re getting to Elizabeth Woodville shortly) the Royal Charter was issued to the East India Company by Elizabeth I in December 1600. Actually, she was only perpetuating the exploratory tendencies of the earlier Tudors who were all (to a greater or lesser extent) interested in the growing New Worlds.

R3Any of Elizabeth’s immediate predecessors could have made a similar Charter offer. It was only the Plantagenets who favoured a more insular and non-expansionist monarchy focused on England. Had they continued it is almost certain that tea would be as uncommon in Britain as wheat grass or posset is today.

Clearly it’s down to the change from Plantagenet to Tudor that has led to us boiling millions of kettles at regular intervals. Although Richard III’s reputation has undergone something of a revival of late, it is certain that he was an often unpopular King mainly due to his early removal of King Edward V and his twin brother and locking them up in the Tower of London for safe keeping.

All of that finally brings us to Elizabeth Woodville, Had she let her late husband’s will stand, Richard would have been appointed protector to the King (he had already declared his loyalty before events overtook matters). Instead, Elizabeth ignored the conditions of the will and pronounced her son Edward V at the age of twelve leading to a fair amount of unpleasantness all round.

As a result, Richard was hated, support fell away, he lost the crown to Henry VII in 1485 and 520 years later it’s hello Chai Latte !

The serious implications of the energy spikes seen in the UK is a requirement to have significant capacity on stand-by and arguably a more robust and costly grid as a result. Guess where those costs end up – in part in our fuel bills.

Unintended consequences indeed. So join me in raising a cup of English Breakfast (nicely timed for your choice of Coronation Street or East Enders) in a toast to Elizabeth Woodville  the Electric queen !

The rush to renewables: Dashed clever those Norwegians

Tintin and SnowyHow many of us have been subjected to the long standing dinner party game where you’re asked to come up with ten famous Belgians (such fun!) and everyone struggles after Tintin and Hercule Poirot. For the pedants among us, I know that neither were actually real (before you point it out) but none the less they usually appear as early contenders for the player determined not to be defeated by the challenge of naming a few moderately notable Europeans.

As an aside, if you do find yourself engaged in this activity, its amazing how many people mention Tintin (or even snowy) yet fail to mention the real life author Hergé. Similarly, five times Formula One world champion Eddie Merckx and Audrey Hepburn rarely get a mention – should you find yourself in need of another few Belgians to make up the score.

NorwayOf course, there are countless variations, possibly my favourite being name 10 famous Norwegians. If anyone you’re playing with (who isn’t from Norway) can come up with more than Ibsen, Edvard Munch, Edvard Greig and Roald Amundson then they’ve been cheating. Again, don’t let them slip Roald Dahl in the list, he was as English as bowler hats and understatement, just of Norwegian descent.

However, that anonymity may all be about to change with the increasing rise of Norwegian engineering in the renewable energy fields, One of the largest plans for tidal capture is based in part around Norwegian engineering. The second, a marriage of physics and engineering may result in a truly environmentally friendly energy generation option in the not too distant future.

Norwegian engineering is one of the drivers behind the Swansea tidal barrage scheme. Whether or not you support the idea of zoning off Swansea bay to increase renewable energy supply you do have to applaud the progress it represents. In recent years, more schemes (both viable and non viable) have moved towards a more thought through solution.

The Swansea Barrage has at its core a twice daily tidal flow capture and generation concept. There is no dependency on winds to blow, sun to shine or rain to fall. So long as there are tides, the solution would generate upwards of 360Mw electricity – enough to power around 100,000 homes. (roughly the size of greater Swansea).

Put into perspective, this remains roughly 1 percent of UK peak demand. However, renewable energy now accounts for roughly 10% of uk power generation (approx 7% wind power and 3% biomass)..Surprisingly, at the time of writing,the UK was getting just over 13% of its national power supply from wind power. A snapshot at any time can be found at  http://www.gridwatch.templar.co.uk How things have changed in a few short years,

So is there still further scope for renewable energy supply in the UK. If you look at the growth of solar farms along the M4 corridor and in the areas of Devon and Cornwall you would certainly think so. In fact, the grid itself may need a significant overhaul to cope with the amounts of power being generated in the west country and south west if the trend continues,

osmosisOf course, wind and solar power have limitations in as much as they only generate when the wind blows or the sun shines. Who is putting the thought into clean renewable energy with reduced dependency on specific climatic or meteorological conditions. Well that brings us back to those crafty Norwegians.

The method is perhaps less usual, osmosis. By exploiting the Norwegian coast (and potentially the UK coast) where freshwater rivers discharge to the sea these crafty Scandinavians are planning to build plants utilising the natural power of osmotic pressure built up through the natural exchange between fresh and salt water.

In fact, the Norwegians have very little reliance on their large reserves of natural oil and gas. The vast majority of their power is provided by hydro-electric power. Up to one fifth of the UK’s gas is provided from Norway with even those filtration and pumping processes being powered by hydro-electric power.

An insight into both the extent and nature of gas production and supply to the UK from Norway and the potential for a truly renewable energy supply can be found at Norwegian Osmotic Power. The additional benefit of osmotic power is that the only by-product is brackish water (a mix of fresh an salt) which would exist naturally without the proposed power plants.

Some food for thought and there could yet be a time where the UK is producing upwards of 75% of its power demands from renewable sources.