Sono Motors solar cell clad Sion

Sono Motors solar cell clad Sion

Sono Motors solar cell clad Sion

I’ve blogged before about solar cells being integrated into ships and planes, and this week I came across a story of Indian trains having them, and many experimental solar cell clad cars compete each year in a race across Australia. It now looks likely that the first solar cell clad car is going to go into commercial production, assuming it can get 5,000 pre-orders. Munich based start-up Sono Motors have just successfully Crowdfunded and launched the Sion. (Great videos) It looks to me to be the coolest electric car in the world and is being sold for the very modest price of £14,500 or 16,000 Euros, excluding the battery, which currently costs an extra 4,000 Euros, but this figure is falling rapidly as battery prices continue to come down. Currently the world’s largest selling electric car is the Nissan Leaf, despite the Tesla’s massive hype. The Sion will be considerably cheaper than either of these, and has a lot of additional features, such as the solar cells, that make it very much cooler. Perhaps the most novel feature is its living moss air filter. The battery has a power take off so that it can be used to charge up other electric cars, for power tools or to sell electricity to the grid.

It is a family sized car totally covered in 330 high specification solar cells, which even on a cloudy day should generate enough electricity to drive 30Kms. With a full battery it has a range of 250Kms. The car is designed for car sharing and lift sharing and comes complete with apps to help these systems.

The UK government has announced its predictably unimpressive goal to rid the country of diesel and petrol cars by 2040. As one might expect much of the press and the incumbent motor industry is bleating about how this could undermine the existing motor industry or require many new power stations. The reality is that this is part of a globally disruptive series of changes that are needed to tackle a human health crisis and the climate crisis. Getting people out of their cars and into public transport is clearly happening in many cities around the world, and needs to happen on a very much greater scale.

I, like a growing number of people do not own a car but share the ownership and use of a number of cars through a car share club. Our club, St James and Bartonsham car share club currently owns four cars, all still fossil fuelled. We hope before too long to switch to electric or hydrogen fuel cell. I’ve written before about Riversimple’s Rasa, probably the most sustainable and best car on the planet. The Sono Motors Sion looks to me to be another one of the best. Note Sono like Riversimple is a tiny start-up. Most of the big volume car makers now have all electric models, but none seem to be so ground breaking as the Rasa or the Sion.

Globally it is estimated that the fossil fuel industry is being subsidized to the tune of $5 trillion per year. We should curtail all such subsidies immediately and aid the speedy end of ‘The Fossil Fuel Age’ and invest in the coming ‘Solar Age’.  In the UK electric car sales make up just 2% of new car sales, while in Norway the figure is 42%. The mayor of Oslo says that she wants her city to have the cleanest air of any city in the world. Reducing the number of cars on the road, having as many of them as shared use as possible and making sure that the actual cars are as minimally polluting as possible are all part of this desired policy, and the Rasa and Sion seem to me to be the cars that best fit this goal.


Disruptive Technologies

Ben and Erica

Dr Ben Garrod with Erica the ‘idealized women’ robot

We live in an era of ever faster technological change. Like all technological changes it is disruptive of old businesses and employment patterns based on earlier technologies. Robotics, artificial intelligence, self driving vehicles and big data are all progressing at incredible speed. The BBC and the OU have jointly made a couple of series of TV programmes looking at this. In ‘Hyper Evolution: The Rise of the Robots’ Prof Danielle George and Dr Ben Garrod focused on the technologies while in ‘The Secrets of Silicon Valley’ Jamie Bartlett focused more on the social impact of these technologies. Both made fascinating viewing, and there are more episodes to come.

Jamie Bartlett pointed out how Silicon Valley technology companies like Apple, Google, Uber and Facebook portray themselves as ‘the good guys’ yet operate much like any corporate entity, seeking to maximize profits with scant regard for the social (or ecological) consequences. Many of them pay very little tax and governments struggle to make them pay. In the past national governments had the ability to nationalize companies that failed to comply with national laws. With these global tech giants that operate in cyber space it is proving difficult for governments to get them to act responsibly.

The fundamental question to me seems to be in whose interests are these companies allowed to operate? At the moment it seems to be a small group of Silicon Valley billionaires. It is probable that hundreds of millions of jobs will disappear as a consequence of these technologies. We could see inequality widen to the extent that there are a few trillionaires and billions of serfs and slaves. Siddharth Kara points out that there are today more slaves than ever before and that slavery is more profitable now than ever before. Current trends in many areas are leading toward a dystopian hell.

A better future may depend on developing new forms of global governance with the power to tax, regulate and redistribute the profits of these global corporations. If jobs are to be automated then a global basic income scheme seems an absolute necessity. The corporations will fight any such plans. Civil society has to prove stronger than corporate interests. That will be one of the epic struggles of the coming decades. Technology has the power to amplify humanity’s impact on each other and on the biosphere, with consequences that could be for good or ill. We as a species have to regain some political control of the process to ensure these technologies are used for the common good.

I’ll be giving a talk on Weds 9th at De Koffie Pot, Left Bank, Hereford, expanding on all this, showing slides and leading a discussion. The title is ‘The Human Future: Changing Technology, Changing Politics’. If you’re in Hereford do come and join us: free entry and very friendly. All welcome.

Tales from West Africa and South Carolina

BBOXX Staff in rural Rwanda (Photo Credit: Power Africa)

BBOXX Staff in rural Rwanda (Photo Credit: Power Africa)

In February I blogged about the exponential growth of solar pv and the disruptive effect this will have on existing power systems. A couple of stories have come my way that highlight the changing economics and technologies.

Togo, the small West African country, provides an interesting example of how the cleantech revolution is progressing. It is one of the least developed countries in the world. Only 7% of the rural population have access to electricity. This is about to change very quickly. A couple of weeks ago UK start-up BBOXX signed an agreement with the government of Togo to bring solar power to 300,000 people. BBOXX supply solar panels, batteries, smart appliances and remote monitoring. Most of the rural population of Togo do not have access to conventional banks. All manner of financial transactions are now done in Africa by mobile phone, including of course for BBOXX’s electricity. The combination of solar panels, batteries and mobile phones is replacing the need for both conventional power stations and banking systems. One of the priorities for the Togolese government in this project is to bring financial inclusion as well as electricity to rural populations. BBOXX expect to bring their solar electric system to 20 million people, mainly across rural Africa and South Asia, by 2020.

In South Carolina, USA, two partially built nuclear reactors have been abandoned at huge cost to the local people. Gains in energy efficiency, cheap gas and cheap renewables have pushed down demand and power prices. Westinghouse has gone bankrupt and the number of operating reactors in USA is falling as old ones are decommissioned and very few new ones are being built. The nuclear renaissance that some commentators were talking about a few years back looks unlikely. This has ominous implications for the viability of UK’s investment in Hinkley C.

South Carolina currently gets 55% of its electricity from nuclear and 40% from coal and gas, and remarkably little from renewables. I would expect this to change very quickly despite Trump. The combination of increases in energy efficiency and the falling costs of renewables look set to have a growing global impact, even in South Carolina. One example is the Tesla solar roof tile that I blogged about last November. I would expect it, and similar products, to grow extremely rapidly. The stock markets sense this direction of travel, so as Westinghouse collapses Tesla soars. Fracking has brought cheap gas to the American market, but at huge environmental cost, and even it is failing to compete with renewables on cost. In 2016 for the first year ever in American history solar added more new generating capacity than any other energy source, adding 14,626 MW. This marks an annual growth rate of 95%, similar to China and many other countries. Expect exponential global growth of solar to continue for some time yet. Good news for people everywhere, from rural Togo to Jenkinsville, South Carolina.

Can Companies Change?

Race Bank_ First Blades

The first wind turbine blades leave Siemens Hull factory for DONG’s Race Bank Offshore Wind Farm

A few days ago I posted a blog about the Norwegian oil company Statoil developing and deploying the world’s first commercial scale floating wind turbines. Statoil is changing its business model. Climate change, ocean acidification, air and water pollution are all largely driven by humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels. Technological innovation and falling prices have made the case to switch from fossil fuels to renewables an economically smart move, as well as being a macro ecological imperative and an absolute necessity for humanity to continue to flourish. The cleantech revolution is happening and is being driven mainly by small start-up companies. What future do the big incumbents have? Will they change with the times or struggle to keep the old polluting economy going? Peabody and DONG provide the most extreme examples of this choice.

The name DONG stands for Danish Oil and Gas. In 1972 it was set up by the Danish government to develop North Sea oil and gas fields. It expanded into electricity supply and owned coal fired power stations. Fossil fuels were its core business. As it has grown it has transformed itself into a cleantech pioneer. It is now the world’s largest builder and owner of offshore wind farms. 80% of its capital is employed in the wind sector and just 4% in oil and gas, and it has said it will sell off this vestigial side of the business while investing heavily in more offshore wind. Last week the first wind turbine blades left Siemens new Hull factory for DONG’s Race Bank Offshore Wind Farm. DONG has also invested in the Cambeltown wind tower factory in western Scotland, owned by Korean company CS Wind. DONG is also now developing some interesting waste to energy projects such as the REnescience project at Northwich, Cheshire. It is creating lots of useful jobs helping develop the technologies that will help combat climate change.

Peabody is a much older company, founded in 1883 in Chicago, USA. It was and remains focused overwhelmingly on coal. To quote Wikipedia ‘Peabody has been an important actor in organized climate change denial.’ It has totally failed to make the transition to a cleantech future. It filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in April 2016. The day after the election of Donald Trump its shares shot up by 50% and in April 2017 it emerged from bankruptcy. It still owns vast coal reserves. If this coal is ever going to be exploited then Peabody has economic value, but if, as climate change and the cleantech revolution show, these assets are just worthless liabilities then a return to bankruptcy seems inevitable.

Most of the world’s huge oil companies, such as Exxon, Chevron, BP and Shell, are still dominated by their oil interests. Most of them have dabbled in renewables but their main capital resources are still overwhelmingly in oil. Will they make the change and fully commit to the post fossil fuel future or will they cleave to the old polluting past? My hunch is that most of them have left it too late: cleantech start-ups will grow exponentially and squeeze them out of the energy market. Their stock market values are likely to plummet as the realization that the reserves they own and that underpin their stock market valuations are worthless. Oil and coal will follow flint from being key economic assets to interesting geological curiosities. When in 1991 the first offshore wind farm opened at Vindeby in Denmark many in the global energy industry thought offshore wind a ludicrous idea. Nobody would say that now. A lot has changed in the last 26 years: much more will do so in the next quarter century as the pace of change inevitably quickens.

Floating wind


Two of the five floating wind turbines, in Norway, before being floated to Scotland

This summer marks a new era in wind power. The world’s first commercial scale floating offshore wind farm is taking shape off Peterhead in Scotland. The Hywind project is just 30MW, so small for a commercial wind farm, but groundbreaking in that the turbines are floating rather than standing on the seafloor. This is hugely significant. Offshore wind has so far been restricted to shallow continental shelf areas such as the North Sea. Many areas of the world wish to develop more diverse renewable energy portfolios but do not have much in the way of suitable shallow waters. Japan and Korea, California and Hawaii, France and many other countries look set to develop floating offshore wind systems over the next decade or so. Currently the cost is higher than for traditional offshore wind, but it is projected to fall as systems are scaled up.

Norwegian oil and gas company Statoil has designed and built the system, using five Siemens 6MW turbines, and a range of other companies for various parts of the supply chain. The towers will have a total height of 258 metres, 178 metres above water and 80 metres below. The base will be filled with iron ore to give ballast and be tethered to the seabed. The turbines are assembled on the Norwegian fjord of Stord and floated in their vertical state across the North Sea. This allows very fast deployment, about seven weeks for the whole wind farm. As things are scaled up this will become a very important area of cost saving. Compare this to the decade or so involved to build a typical nuclear power station. The Hywind project is 75% owned by Stadoil and 25% by Masdar. Stadoil refer to this as a pilot project. If it works well in the testing conditions off North East Scotland global orders will come in, which will trigger falling costs and more orders. I think it likely that very large floating windfarms in the deep water off Japan, Korea, California and the Breton coast of France will be built over the next decade. Will it be Stadoil who builds them or will rival firms emerge with better and cheaper designs?


Today, 11th July, is the UN World Population Day. There are now nearly 7.6 billion of us, and the predictions are that by 2050 there will be 9.5 billion, and 11.2 billion by 2100. Global fertility rates are falling, but still we have an extra 83 million people to feed, house and cloth each year. Africa has the fastest rate of growth and Europe the slowest.

There have been many predictions of imminent famine and collapse due to overpopulation, as global food production would fail to keep pace with population growth. Also as the world’s poor aspired to rich world lifestyles the total ecological footprint of humanity would become catastrophic. Pollution would become more extreme and resources ever more scarce and the reason for endless wars.

However there is another possibility. Through peaceful cooperation humanity can collectively pioneer a new kind of global economy that rapidly eliminates the hunger and poverty of the world’s poorest people and the excess and waste of the world’s richest people. Together we as a species have the opportunity to work out sustainable solutions to all our problems, to restore biodiversity while feeding clothing and housing our growing population in ways that are socially just and ecologically sustainable. I’m sure it can be done, at least theoretically. To make it a reality will require the almost infinite creativity and capacity to cooperate that our species is capable of. I meet a growing number of people who are keen to play their part in this great transformation of the global economy. As Buckminster Fuller said back in the 1960’s ‘We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims’.

“Can we feed 9 billion people, sustainably?” is the title of a talk I’m giving tomorrow evening at De Koffie Pot, and was the theme of last week’s blog.

Seed Festival

Seed Festival

The Seed Festival will be taking place at Hawkwood Collage, near Stroud, this weekend. The line up of speakers is terrific, including Caroline Lucas, Molly Scott Cato and Rob Hopkins, all of whom I’ve heard before and am keen to hear again, and also lots of not so well known names speaking on a great range of interesting themes. I’m on a Choices Panel with Louise Davies of the Vegan Society and Ed Downing. There will be varied other activities and music amid a lovely setting. Tickets are still on sale, so if you’re looking for something inspiring, with lots of positive solution focused thinking, do come and join us!

Food and farming

The vegetable garden in early July

The vegetable garden in early July

On Wednesday 12th July I’ll be giving in a talk in Hereford, 7.30 at De Koffie Pot, on the subject “Can we feed 9 billion people, sustainably?” My answer to that is an emphatic “YES!” with a few big if’s and buts. We live in a world where the old problems of hunger and famine persist and where a global obesity epidemic is emerging. Providing an optimal diet for the 7.5 billion of us alive today, or the projected 9 billion of us who’ll be sharing the planet by 2050, seems to me theoretically achievable but will require change in many ways. Many of the changes required are not to do with farming systems but with social and economic systems. Bringing peace, stability, democracy, development and probably some kind of basic income schemes to the poorest countries will be necessary to conquer the old problems of hunger and famine. Changes to education, taxation and other social measures will be required to address obesity.

Change also needs to come to farming systems, many of which are leading to soil erosion and water pollution and which are in any case often economically dependent on grant support which is unlikely to continue. I’ll be showing slides and talking about at least half a dozen very different farming systems that seem to me to offer hope. They are an incredibly diverse bunch. Some very high tech, some very low tech. Some building soil fertility and in the process sequestering atmospheric carbon, others, like hydroponics, by-passing soil altogether.

I’ve blogged before about Sundrop farms pioneering farm at Port Augusta in South Australia. They use solar power to desalinate sea water, and to provide electricity, heating and cooling for the greenhouses in which they grow huge crops of tomatoes hydroponically. Turning hot dry deserts into centres of sustainable food production seems to me to be one of the greatest opportunities to increase global food production.

The best systems of pasture management can restore damaged and degraded soils and sequester carbon while producing excellent quality meat and dairy products while improving animal welfare. Such systems are promoted by the Pasture Fed Livestock Association and one of my favourites is White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, USA. There is a great 14 min video with Will Harris talking about his farms transition. The resulting ecological and economic regeneration of the area has been hugely impressive.

A very different path is being pioneered by Iain Tolhurst in south Oxfordshire in England. Tolhurst Organics was the first farm to achieve the Soil Association’s Stockfree Organic symbol. They have pioneered building soil fertility with green manures and composting without any animal manure, so making the farm a beacon for those wanting a sustainable and vegan system of food production.

These are just a few of the examples I’ll be talking about at De Koffie Pot. If you’re in Hereford area then do come along and join in the discussion. You may know of farms that are doing great work, and if so I’d love to hear from you.

The end of Neo-Liberalism?

Grenfell Tower

The Neo-Liberal obsession with cutting ‘red tape’ (fire regulations, building regulations, building inspectors etc) contributed to the disaster at Grenfell Tower.

Since the Thatcherite revolution of 1979 a neo-liberal ideology has dominated politics. Rolling back the state, low tax, low regulation unrestricted capitalism have been the central tenets of this worldview. Wealth has trickled up, further enriching the very rich while the majority have seen living standards stagnate or fall. Levels of inequality have risen dramatically. It was an ideology that was especially dominant in UK and USA, and Trump, May and the Brexiteers are the real extremists of this policy direction. The tide seems to be turning. The need to build stronger social and environmental legislation seems more apparent than ever.

The Grenfell tower block fire has brought into sharp focus several of these issues. The obsession with cutting red tape included watering down fire regulations and cutting back on building inspectors and other council services. The fact that flammable cladding materials were used rather than fire resistant ones just to save a tiny amount of money has cost the lives of many people. David Lammy and Jeremy Corbyn have shown empathy and leadership entirely lacking from May and her cabinet.

Poor air quality causes much illness and death and it is an issue which can be greatly helped with the right legislation, but this government continues to drag its feet and is only spurred into action by the legal challenges of ClientEarth and the European Union. The same can be said for the banning of dangerous agricultural chemicals such as glyphosate and the neonicotinoids where this government seems to be on the side of corporate interests at the expense of public safety. On climate change Trump, May and the neo-liberal extremists always line up on the side of the fossil fuel industry and against the interests of people and planet.

Many cities, regions and countries are realising the benefits of stronger environmental, safety and human rights regulation in stimulating a new cleantech economy which prioritises the needs of the many and not the few, the planet and not the polluter. A new worldview is emerging that has not yet got a name. It is pluralistic, pragmatic, cooperative and collegiate, socially and ecologically responsible. Corbyn taps into a part of it, Macron and Merkel to other aspects of it, perhaps in many ways the Greens fit best, but no one group has all the answers: we must work together to overcome the destructive dominance of neo-liberalism and create something very much better.

In much of Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, neo-liberalism never held such dominance, and they have more socially and ecologically responsible governments. We should withdraw article 50 and remain in the EU. Together we can repair the damage that 38 years of neo liberalism has created and that the Brexiteers will only make worse.

My talks

Co2 graph

Atmospheric Co2 over the last 800,000 years. Ice Ages have come and gone but the use of fossil fuels has pushed us into a new and dangerous place. My response is to write these blogs and to give talks about what humanity could and should do to bring us back toward a safer climatic future.

A couple of weeks ago, on the night before the election, I was giving a talk in Bridgnorth. The title was ‘Trump, the Carbon Bubble & the possibilities of a better future.’ I was putting forward a strongly political message and one man got up and left, saying he’d come to hear about climate change and not about politics. As I tried to point out to him, and to the hall full of people, effective action to reduce the dangers of climate change is essentially a set of political decisions. Humanity has the technologies to massively reduce all forms of pollution, and also the technologies to make the situation very much worse. What infrastructure we build, what taxes we implement, how we allocate resources and how we cooperate internationally are all fundamentally political decisions.

The first part of my talk was focused on the global political struggle as Trump, Putin, Saudi Arabia and the global oil, gas and coal corporations who fund them seek to keep the fossil fuel economy going as long as possible. On the other hand the vast majority of countries see the dangers of climate change and the positive opportunities in developing cleantech based economies. Some governments, such as that of the UK, are in a state of confusion, thinking they can do both. Most of the EU, China and many smaller countries are increasingly seeing the necessity and the benefits of ditching fossil fuels.

The second part of my talk focused on the emerging range of technologies that are making it possible to provide a good standard of living and a good quality of life to all 7.5 billion of us, and to do this in ways that reduce the dangers of climate change, reduce pollution and regenerate biodiversity. These positive possibilities get better by the day, yet our time window in which we need to take action gets narrower by the day.

I’ve a few more talks coming up, and I’d absolutely love to do more. One that I’m developing is titled ‘How to create a better world: fundamental principles.’ Another I’m working on is ‘Can we feed 9 billion people sustainably?’ I often do talks about what a 100% renewably powered global economy might look like and how we might get there. If you’d like me to come and speak, show slides, take questions and lead discussions with whatever group of people you’re involved with, please do get in touch.

After the Bridgnorth talk I got some really positive feedback, including that the man who left early complaining that the talk was too political had e-mailed the organiser later that evening to say it was probably his loss to have left early. Very encouraging!