Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Why you SHOULD get a smart meter

In the UK, we are in the middle of a smart meter rollout. Basically energy firms keep pestering their customers to get a smart meter. The government is encouraging this. Many people I know are very negative and grumpy about this, probably because they are, in general, cynical about government initiatives, and have a hostility towards electricity companies. Plus there is a ton of silly conspiracy theory bullshit to select from.

Getting a smart meter is involved because you need some space around your existing meter to install it. This means for people like me whose meter was crammed into a box, you have to do a staggering amount of work to make a (free) smart meter install possible. I did it anyway. This blog will explain why.

Firstly…what is a smart meter? Its basically an electricity meter that connects via the phone network to a wide-area-network and can report your electricity usage in half hour segments remotely. This means nobody has to come to your house and ‘read’ the meter. Its also digital (at last) instead of an old fashioned 1950s style monstrosity with a spinning disk and analog readouts… Smart meters are fitted for free by your electricity company. My install was way more involved than that for tedious reasons, not least because I have a solar panel array and also an electric car charger. Thus my setup now looks this complex:

Top left is a fusebox (consumer unit in modern-speak), top right another fusebox (for the solar panels). Middle left is the solar panel generation meter for calculating my feed-in-tariff from the government, the white box to the right is the smart meter, and to the right of that is the black box with the main power fuse for the house. MOST people’s houses have far less complex electrics than this!

Why does the government want us all to have smart reasons? Well there are two reasons. One is talked about, another is fiendishly complex, and you have to do a lot of reading about energy markets and the national grid and talk to solar farm installers to work it out. Lets start with the first reason.

Smart meters make you save energy

This is the official reason we all need one. It sounds like it must be nonsense, but its actually super-true. I’m someone who is OBSESSED with efficiency and knows a lot about energy efficiency, and the smart meter effect even works on me. You get a remote gadget like a tiny tablet that shows you your current energy usage, and how much you have spent so far today. You can also get an app for your phone, which is tons better and displays pretty graphs and goes into a lot more detail, but ignoring that for now the in-home-display unit is actually quite cool.

Why do smart meters come with an In-Home Display? | Blog | Bulb

The display even has a tiny, not-oft-seen icon that lights up to show you when you are exporting power back to the electricity grid, should you be fortunate enough to have solar panels and generating more than you are using. This is an immediate sign that you should charge some laptops or phones or put the dishwasher on :D

Cynically, you might think that just ‘knowing’ how much power you use will achieve nothing, but it really does. We can see the massive spike when we put on an electric heater, and an even bigger spike if I plug in my electric car. If you look at the more fine-grained data on the smartphone app, you can see every time you boiled a kettle. Just seeing the massive difference between using one appliance versus another makes you think. And energy prices having shot up means those numbers are about to get way bigger.

So this reason is all about social engineering. Show people WHEN they are spending most of the electricity and they will make smarter decisions. Dishwashers running half empty are a waste of energy. Leaving an electric heater on when you are not in that room is a big waste of money. As people realize this, they will adapt their lives in subtle ways that reduce their energy consumption.

This is the main reason given, but its only part of the puzzle

Demand shifting and protecting the grid

Almost all western countries electricity grids are the same. There are a few super-huge power stations, normally in coastal areas, or remote areas, then a big fat network of pylons carrying the power to local substations, which then run cables to each house. I missed a few steps there, but generally that is the layout. Also most grids are OLD. population density is higher since the grids were built out, but the layout has remained the same. Until recently its kind of worked ok. Before I explain why its not working so well now, here are some technical details.

The UK electricity grid runs at a certain frequency. Its *roughly* 50 HZ. In fact, there are real-time-websites that let you see the current frequency of the grid. Right now it is 49.965HZ. This is really important. Its important because a lot of electrical equipment, especially really expensive electrical equipment, will absolutely freak out and fail/catch fire/explode if its much above or below that frequency. The frequency depends on the balance of supply and demand.

What that means is, that some organization (in the UK its national grid plc) has to keep turning power plants on and off again, to ensure that supply matches demand closely enough that the energy grid frequency remains within a narrow band. If they are going to fail to achieve that, they have to take drastic action, like closing entire sections of the grid off, in other words a power cut. This is a VERY big deal, so its to be avoided at all costs. How do they manage this?

Its generally not been too bad, because demand for energy is pretty predictable. The national grid checks weather reports, to see what temperatures will be (to determine the need for heaters or fans/air conditioning), predicts that supply, and then schedules power station output to match it. This sounds easy, and it is…for certain types of power. Britain gets about 15% of its power from nuclear, which always runs flat-out, which means the flexibility has to come from other sources. In our case, thats gas-fired power stations, which can be turned on and off fairly quickly.

This has been happening for decades and everything has been fine. What makes it work even in cases of extreme demand is that we also have cables connecting us to France, and other countries that let us export power (rare) or import it (more common). However its starting to get tricky, really tricky, its starting to get unmanageable.

Renewable energy has entered the chat

Renewable energy is awesome. I’m a true believer, I’m even building a solar farm. But it brings challenges. Renewable energy is cheap, and environmentally awesome, but its variable. Some days its cloudy. Some days its windy. This introduces instability into the grid, meaning its MUCH more likely that we sometimes have way too much energy, and other times we have way too little. This can be accounted for and managed…but its introducing huge complexity.

FWIW, the national grid has put in place LOTS of ways to manage this. They all have exciting names and acronyms like ‘Fast Frequency Response’ and ‘Load Shedding’ and ‘Peak Shaving’. Its a whole super-involved ecosystem of trying to manage, in real-time, to keep that demand equal to supply while handling multiple different energy types, and demand spikes, and free-market energy trading systems.

You might think that electricity has just gone up 50% in the UK and that this is a big deal. Haha. You know nothing Jon Snow. Lets look at the real charts behind the headlines, that nobody outside the industry even looks at:

BTW, if you are on a long term fixed price energy tariff, you are paying the equivalent of about 50-60 on that chart. So…. looking forward to a potential trebling of energy prices? maybe even a quadrupling? But although this chart should alarm politicians, its not the one that alarms people trying to balance our grid with renewables. here are some more fun charts:

Electricity is traded in half hour chunks. No idea why, so 48 on the X axis is one day. You can see that the electricity price on the wholesale free market in the Uk yesterday ranged from £-50 to £229.90 per megawatt hour, in a single day. This is NOT at all unusual. This chart is an outcome of some desperate attempts to match demand to supply. Talking of supply:

This is what they are trying to balance. Nuclear is 100% inflexible, and must run all of the time (for economic reasons). Wind and Solar do their thing, and then we try and balance the rest by exporting/importing using the interconnectors. The thing is… we still cant do it, so we need to change the demand as well as the supply, or the whole house of cards will collapse…

Demand Management

If supply is an absolute random number generator, you need to change demand, otherwise we are in trouble. The grid already has systems in place to do this in both directions. You can be paid a regular flat fee by the grid, to agree that if they REALLY need to, they can turn off your electricity. This is for big factories and aluminum smelting plants, which draw huge power. If what you do is super-time-critical, this is unattractive, but for some industries its perfect. Thats load-shedding.

Another method is to create a market for energy storage. This is a real thing. The solar farm I am building will also have a 500kwh battery. Thats like 7 or 8 electric cars. The options available to you when you have battery storage are myriad, and very complex. This is where peak shaving and firm-frequency response come in. Peak-shaving is basically a way of smoothing out a sine wave by storing energy when you have too much, and releasing that energy back when you have too little. Some solar farms or other renewable systems can do this. Its especially helpful for solar farms because typical solar output looks like this over a day:

Thats my solar output yesterday. The thing is…if you scale this up we have a huge huge problem. The problem is this: The electricity grid cannot cope.

Remember my earlier description. The grid is old, and designed for a small number of big phat power stations. Incredibly high power and capacity cables run from sites like Sizewell nuclear power station to big cities like London and Birmingham. This works fine. But the cables that go out to all the smaller towns and the rural locations with wind farms and solar farms? These cables suck. They have no capacity to add further generation. They are ‘constrained’ in energy-industry-speak. Upgrading these cables costs a FORTUNE, and I know that, because I’m making a bank transfer today of £50k as a down-payment on an upgrade to some cables for my solar farm. Even if you are happy to pay, in many cases the grid upgrades are just catastrophically hard to do, and slow to do, and we don’t have time for that. We NEED to add renewable energy faster than we can upgrade the grid.

Save the grid!

In a situation where you cannot upgrade the grid, you are left staring at that solar chart thinking “hmmm…if only this was more predictable…”. Like this:

This is peak shaving. Take off the peaks and fill in the troughs. Its still not a flat supply, but its capped at a much lower level than the natural peak. If that natural peak would overload the grid, then we can still connect our big solar farm, but we use peak shaving to put less of a ceiling on our grid output. Plus the grid loves us…because they get a way less ‘spiky’ energy supply to contend with.

To make it clear: when the chart is red, we are sending some of our power to the battery. When its green, we are draining the battery.

Thats peak shaving. Firm-frequency response is different. Thats when the grid pays you, as a battery owner, to reserve usage of your batteries, with no-warning, if they suddenly need to dump power in it, or to whip that power back if they suddenly need it back. This happens on a VERY short timescale (think seconds or less). This is how they can keep that frequency where it should be.

How does this make me want a smart meter?

What I’m describing there is how renewable energy companies can make money, and how the energy industry is coping with renewables. But this also can affect us. To put it bluntly: we are not, and can not build enough batteries to keep up with the demand for frequency response issues for quite a while. For the foreseeable future, we will need to expand the size of the economy that we can do demand-management on. That means that individual home owners need to get in on the action.

Right now, my electricity company charge me £0.24 per kwh of power. If I want it now, its £0.24. If I want it at 3AM, it £0.24, so I frankly don’t care when I use power I KNOW I have to use.

Luckily I have 3 weapons at my disposal that will allow me, as a smug smart meter owner, to ‘haggle’ with the energy company. I own a dishwasher, a washing machine and… *drumroll* an electric car. I NEED the dishes washed today, the clothes washed today and the car charged over the next 12 hours, but I dont REALLY care the exact time any of this happened. So make me an offer…

Star Trek Minus Context on Twitter: "https://t.co/Svy8TL5am9" / Twitter

I don’t plug my car in every day, it doesn’t need it, but if I knew that I might get an offer of power for £0.01 /kwh at 4am tomorrow, I’ll fill my car up to the max. That suits me fine, and it suits the desperately-balancing grid even finer. Its a huge win-win, and smooths out some of those crazy price spikes. This sort of thing is ONLY possible with smart meters.

I’m about to swap to a different tariff, for EV owners, that gives me nighttime power at 75% off. This suits me perfectly, I’ll schedule the car charging and other stuff to run during those off peak hours. Excellent. Good for me, and good for the grid. And yes…EV owners are a minority for now, but a rapidly growing one. A big EV has an 85-100kwh battery, which represents a HUGE chunk of your electricity consumption. If everyone ends up with an EV, and we can all have the charging times auto-negotiated with the grid, thats a big win.

Notice that this is NOT ‘vehicle-to-grid’, where your car acts as a grid-connected battery. Thats a different, and interesting issues, but we don’t even need that. What we need is just to have ‘smart’ usage of electricity. We need to do localized peak-shaving in our communities so that the draw from each community is smoothed out and manageable.

The need for this is even greater when you consider rooftop solar. In an ideal world, if I’m on holiday but its sunny, my solar panels can charge my neighbors EV or run their dishwasher, without that energy ever needing to leave this village and put a strain on the main trunk-roads of the grid. It CANNOT put a strain on the grid, because the grid is already creaking like crazy.

Climate change is driving us to have more electric cars AND more renewable energy, meaning we demand more from the grid, just as it becomes more unstable. Smart meters HAVE to be rolled out to everyone ASAP, and I decided to get ahead of the chaos and the crush by getting mine early. If you live in the UK you WILL end up with a smart meter, and it will likely save you money. There is no real reason to avoid getting to the front of the queue before the queue explodes in size. It took me 3 months to get mine. Electricity prices have risen dramatically since I applied…

CO2 Policies in Democracy 4

I’m starting to fine tune some of the values in the simulation so that they reflect a better approximation of real world choices in 2020, as well as keeping the game fun to play, and taking into account some new policy options that we have introduced. A runthrough of all the current options in my policies list that affect CO2 emissions DIRECTLY gives me this:

This is in NO WAY the extent of the CO2 sim, because its also affected indirectly. For example we now model veganism/vegetarianism and its impact on emissions, and you can indirectly affect them by policies that encourage less meat consumption, which happens (again indirectly)( through tougher food standards and food labeling and certain dilemmas and events.
Also a lot of emissions come from Cars and Planes, and we have taxes and other systems such as bus and train subsidies that allow you to affect the take-up of those forms of transport, as well as the conversion from fossil fuel vehicles to electric..

HOWEVER! That does not mean I should just throw my hands up in despair and go ‘its too complex!’. I need to keep checking values to ensure they make at least some rational sense right? :D So what do I need to change here…

Obviously the carbon tax is WAY too good. It has negative impacts too, in that it damages the economy and upsets capitalists at the extremes, but not nearly enough for a policy that brings in so much cash. At the extreme end it brings in more than twice as much as inheritance tax at its extremes. Something I REALLY should model is one of the paradoxes of taxes like these…

A carbon tax is an externality tax. Its basically punishing people for doing something bad thats not otherwise reflected in the market. If such taxes do their job… people do less of that thing. if people do less of that thing… the tax REVENUE goes DOWN. In other words, as we put the tax up, the revenue should rise and then plateau and then fall…

Luckily thats easy! because we support all sorts of equation types in the game, Currently the game has a multiplier on the income from the carbon tax like so:

CO2Emissions,0.5+(1.0*x)

Which is rubbish, because if we reduce emissions to zero, the tax should clearly be zero too. We need to change that to be a straight linear multiplier instead. Also I think we need some extra negatives for that tax. It effectively acts as an energy tax (annoys everyone) a car tax (annoys motorists…scaled by the electric car transition…) and a flight tax (annoys wealthy and reduces tourism).

Looking at the other end of things, Carbon Capture & Storage is ludicrously ineffective yet expensive. Is there a reason for this? Well it is VERY fast acting, unlike many of the others (which makes sense, as it ACTIVELY takes carbon out of the atmosphere, instead of hoping one day people buy less polluting cars…), but even so… I may have to bump up its usefulness and tweak the cost down a bit…

Other noticeable ones are new car subsidies having minuscule effect and huge cost. It reduces our emission by 4% at best. Cars contribution to emissions is roughly 12% of the total (data here). Assuming that the new car subsidies at their peak involve maybe 50% of cars being replaced, that should affect 6% of emissions…so new cars being more efficient really is a drop in ocean. Yikes.

Meanwhile in the real world about 50% of CO2 is from the energy sector, yet my renewable energy subsidies only reduce emissions at maximum by 15%, whereas pollution controls are 19%. That seems backwards at best, but maybe pollution controls needs a major reduction in effectiveness. After all, its just ‘controls’ without specifying more, so that might limit emissions, but certainly not stop them entirely. Its likely focused on particulates and even water/ground pollution too…

Also mandatory micro-generation looks a little generous. As effective as centralized subsidies? I doubt it. Even if EVERYONE starts to retrofit houses with solar panels, that still doesn’t cover winter/night-time generation, and in terms of bang-for-your bucks, Hydro and Wind (esp offshore huge farms) are likely to be more cost effective.

Also I reckon eco home regulations is under-effective. It will take a LONG time to take effect, but as someone who RIGHT NOW is getting new windows fitted (see below my thermal camera image showing the new (Blue) and old (yellow!) and can feel the difference… I think that this should be a more effective overall and per-dollar policy.

warmerhouse.jpg

Lots more to tweak!

My non games idea

I’d like to set up a company one day which solved an inefficiency in the market for consumer services.

Right now, in the UK and most countries individual consumers enter into deals with utility suppliers to provide them with Electricity, maybe gas, water, and telephony / internet access. This involves setting up an account, deciding on a username/password, some bank details, picking a ‘plan’ and so on. We are widely told that the range of deals available means we should shop around and change our providers often. In practice few people do this. (I do, but I’m…different). What bugs me is not that few people do shop around, but that the process is so clunky and manual.

Now I’m not talking about ‘making switching easier’. thats lame, and unambitious. I’m talking about making it automated. Not on a year-to-year basis, but on a second by second basis. Think less like a form-filling bureaucrat, and more like a high frequency trader.

hft

When I switch on my PC, and it draws current from the mains, I want there to be a super-fast auction, right then, in the exact same way banner-adverts are traded, where my AI agent that represents me haggles on the energy market to get me the extra power for the next few seconds. And I want it to keep haggling all the time I’m drawing power. I also want my taps (faucets to some of you) to do the same thing, and I want my telephone, broadband, everything to work the same way.

Of course, this works WAY better when we can defer demand. A smart fridge can, for example put in a  request for power to its compressor *some time in the next five minutes*, but not care exactly when. As a result, it should get a darned good deal. On the other hand, a hairdryer needs power RIGHT NOW, and at the other end of the spectrum, my fancy-pants electric car can charge *at some point in the next eight hours*. I don’t care when.

This would make for a huge boost in energy efficiency. The demand curve of UK power would flatten out substantially, meaning less need for overcapacity to handle ‘spikes’. It used to be the case that the definition of a UK power spike was either the adverts at the end of the TV show ‘coronation street’ or the end of the queens speech on Christmas day. Why? Because thats when about 10 million Brits switched on a 240volt 2,000 watt electric kettle. I’m not kidding. Apparently after the ‘who shot Phil Mitchell’ episode of EastEnders, power surged by 2.6 GW. As I type this, demand is 32GW in total.

grid

Anyway…what annoys me is not that we do not have this system in place (I understand it involves huge infrastructure investment and new appliances), but that we do not seem to be making ANY steps in that direction whatsoever. I have a big energy-guzzling car, which would be perfectly suited to negotiating a time to draw current with the power company, and yet there is, AFAIK, NO provider in the UK that even has a prototype for such a system. Why?

Sadly I expect this will never happen, and what we will end up is local co-operatives handling power management themselves. if I had a Tesla powerwall, I could save any excess from my solar panels, and either use it to charge my car, or to sell into a village-linked system to a neighbour. I suspect local systems like this, with a fraction of the potential savings are going to become commonplace before any of the big players in UK infrastructure take a step in this direction.

Insulating my ancient roof

Sooo… in-between all my games stuff I continue my hilariously slow process of trying to make my 1750’s drafty house more energy efficient. The big area of the house that is still horribly uninsulated is the attic, which is a sort-of spare room, which we never really use. Maybe twice a year.

because it’s so old, it’s not like insulating a new house with regularly spaced rafters and throwing down some nice easily unrolled insulating thingies. You need to use ‘breathable’ insulation. The attic has about eight wall panels that cover the eaves. I’ve insulated behind 3 already, and today I finally finished the fourth. here is the panel at the start.

behind that is a notable lack of insulation, and some thick felt like stuff hanging down. Look behind and around that and we find that the current insulation is…

Rubble! Yes rubble. huge pieces of slate, stone, some straw, a few long bits of wood, some newspaper, some stuff which I briefly panicked was asbestos, but we now think was just plaster dust. When I say ‘some’ I mean about a dozen bucketfulls of the stuff. methinks modern insulation has moved beyond ‘fill the eaves with rubble and straw!

And here we are with me having put down a nice thick layer of insulation instead of all that dust and rubble.

And here we go with another layer on top of that so it’s double thickness. Insulation achievement unlocked +10 points. Well done.

Apparently it started snowing in the west of England today, so maybe I’ll find out sooner than expected if it makes any difference whatsoever. It makes me feel better anyway :D

Attic Insulation again…

Theres some games conference going on, but I’m not there, and it’s very pazazzy, so I thought I’d blog about loft insulation instead. I’m sticking it to the man.

I live in a very old (1750s) house built out of mud and dead peasants, and it’s extremely cold at times. This is because the house was built before mankind invented double glazing, or indeed, glazing, it sometimes seems. Anyway, part of my five year stalinesque plan is to insulate the darned thing, and we are currently working on the attic. the attic is big, has lots of old beams and is about two hundred degrees below zero.

Taking away the side panels to see what was behind them revealed this:

Which is to say mostly 18th century rubble, dust and the remains of fossilised birds nests. Not a completely poor insulator, but not exactly aerogel. Clearly we could do better, but we needed to preserve an air gap to allow air to circulate. These old houses need to ‘breath’. We ended up wedging individually cut pieces of reflective-backed foam insulation between the rafters, with tiny blocks to hold them in place. That felt is all that is between me, and the stone roof tiles, and then open country…

Eventually that was all done on this bit, which is the lower section of a quarter of the half of the room we are currently doing. This will tke years. (we ended up doing a quarter of the attic, to date). a second  layer of felt goes back, pinned on top of all this.

Then the fun bit, which is laying lots of ‘semi-rigid’ sheeps-woolesque soft insulation between the floor rafters (not visible here), and then laying an additional layer of really wooly even more sheeps woolesque stuff over the top, curved around to prevent any drafts. You can also see a big thick mega-chunky piece of foam insulation that will go in front of all of this, behind the wooden side panels (the panel itself is very thin and crap). The sheeps woolesque stuff was horrid. cue lots of spluttering and itching.

This is everything put back in place, all I need to do now is fill the slight gap where it meets the beam with flexible filler, then I’m going to give the whole thing a coat on nano-paint. it sounds like bullshit, but we used this in our living room and it’s very very good. Basically a nanotech paint additive that reflects heat. great for insulating where cavity walls don’t exist and internal insulation isn’t an option. This is what it all looked like before we started. This time it might be warm though. It’s certainly quieter.

The other end of the room is much much harder to get to, so we are employing someone to come balance on ladders and do that end for us. One day, the temperature of the house will get to the stage where we can have just 2 duvets in the summer. One of the positive outcomes to doing this, is that as I lay there covered in dirt, hammering nails and swearing, I remembered why I gave up carpentry to become a computer programmer. Woodwork sucks. Debugging might be annoying, but C++ doesn’t bend when you hit it.