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

Solar Farm Update #2

So…it turns out its a loong time since I blogged about positech energy, so here we go with an update…of sorts.

Quick recap: I started a new company that is in the process of hopefully building a 1MW solar farm with 500kwh of grid-tied battery storage for frequency response/load shifting. Its privately owned by me and my wife.

Progress TAKES FOREVER if you actually want to build something in the UK. Not because of covid, or shortages, or because of Brexit (it would be convenient to blame all 3), but just because nobody in the UK, especially bureaucrats have any sense of urgency whatsoever. Its absolutely infuriating. But anyway… some progress is being made. Here is the basic high level run-down of whats involved in building a solar farm:

  • Find a site where a landowner is open to having a solar farm, and where grid connection is possible, and where grid capacity is available and planning permission is likely.
  • Get an agreement in principle with the landowner regarding rent and location of the panels, and stuff like access roads, location of substations.
  • Gather all the myriad insane pieces of paperwork, like visual impact assessments, biodiversity reports, archaeological surveys and other assorted paperwork needed to apply for planning.
  • Apply for planning permission
  • Apply to the DNO (Grid network operator for that region) for a grid connection quote.
  • Get the grid connection
  • Order battery/panels
  • Install everything
  • Profit! (ha…maybe).

The actual order these things happen in is subject to change. There is a definite matter of chicken and egg when it comes to some of them. A grid connection application costs £750, and planning permission costs £7,500 (just to apply, no guarantees). So you don’t really want to spend £7.5k without knowing if the connection is affordable, and conversely the £750 is wasted if you don’t get permission. The problem is both the DNO grid quote AND planning permission take ages, so they can easily add months each to development time.

Also note that a grid connection quote does not mean ‘we can start Monday’. It could be ‘That will be £30,000 but we cant start for six months’. This means you really ideally do not want to wait several months for planning, then maybe a month for a DNO quote and add six months on the end of that… before you know it its 2050.

So My plan is to finalize the landowner agreement, and assuming thats ok, to do the pre-planning stuff (various paperwork) at the same time as the DNO application. At least that gets the ball rolling. Then, if it turns out we fail planning permission (£7.5k wasted) then an extra £750 isn’t a complete disaster, just a relatively minor additional loss.

It may seem ages since I announced I was doing this, and to be honest, little progress has been made. We found a site…and then the site was basically nabbed by someone else. Then we found a second site…and the grid connection cost was mad (but planning already existed). We are effectively just moving a few hundred meters from that site now into another field and thus doing planning from scratch (arggghh), but we reckon the planning costs in total (£15-20k) should be less than the reduction in grid connection costs due to shorter cable runs.

So right now we are still basically on the first item on the list, but hopefully close to finalizing the second. This required a topographical survey of the site, which is basically an extremely expensive CAD drawing of the elevation, which you need to reference in a lease, so both the land owner and you are 100% agreed on what part of what field contains what equipment.

This isn’t just 10 panels on a frame, but a battery storage unit (shipping container size), 2 electricity substations (one for us, one for the grid operator), an access road and 2,760 solar panels on frames, plus 9 seriously big inverters, so you need to be in full agreement on where this goes. Plus there may be CCTV and a perimeter fence. Its quite a lot of kit…

If everything fell apart now, then I would be down a non-trivial annoying amount of money, but this is to be expected when I start an energy company and start to build actual power stations. I suspect this site will go ahead ok, but its agonizing having so many things up in the air and out of my hands. Its precisely *because* doing this is hard, that I am doing it, to show other people how to do it, and so we get more built.

Expect blogging on this to increase as we get deeper into the process of planning applications. I would tell you all the specs of the panels/inverters but TBH they are all subject to change because of the unknown timescales involved in the grid connection and planning permission. Current plans are to get South Korean cells though, due to concerns about labor practices in China.

Crazy Energy prices, Short Deadlines, Solar Power.

This is not a blog post about games. Its because I also run a solar energy company, which is in its infancy, but hopefully will start doing cool things next year, like building a solar farm.

How often do you check the price of electricity? If you are like most people its…never. Maybe you go to a price comparison website every few years to see if you can get a better deal for your home electricity, but most people even then will not look at the actual price. Most people have no idea what their monthly electricity price is, and certainly no idea what the price per kwh (1,000 watts used for one hour) is.

I’m not like that.

The entire business model for the solar farm I hope to build next year (hopefully getting topographical survey results today,. probably signing the lease this month…), is based around the price of electricity being a certain value or higher. With current panel prices / inverter prices / storage prices and about 500 other factors, that minimum price is about £55 per MWH. (or £0.055 per kwh). This is the WHOLESALE price, not the price most end users pay. Its been around that price for a while.

Lets look at a fun wholesale price chart for the UK!

So…if you are looking at that and thinking you are confused because no way will the price of electricity be actually £160 per MWH compared to 55 this winter then… I have bad news for you. This chart is, AFAIK, correct. In fact, it gets way, way worse. Lets look at what the forward prices (prices at which electricity is being traded now for delivery at future dates) looked like on the 13th of September:

Yup. its insane. We have had at least one day where the price has spiked to nearly 10x what it had been for the last few years. The price if electricity in the UK for retail customers has a price cap, but thats due to be adjusted next month. The actual price cap rise is about 12%, which if you consider that peoples salaries have not exactly risen 12% in the last year, is pretty shocking, but the really interesting/scary story is that there is NO WAY that energy companies can stay in business with only a 12% rise. The regulator will HAVE to allow higher prices, and soon. They set the 12% change in August which is now…very out of date.

So why Am I blogging about this?

Because the UK is in a serious mess when it comes to energy. To put it bluntly: we cannot produce enough power to keep this country running. We have closed almost all coal mines (necessary, due to climate change), but we didn’t make enough of an effort to fill the gap. And now we are going to have to VERY rapidly switch from gasoline cars to electric cars, our power demand is actually going to go up, not down, despite the best energy efficiency measures.

There is an awesome website that tracks where the UK energy comes from in real time. The UI is horrible but you get the general idea. We have a fair amount of base-load nuclear, and some intermittent wind and solar, but a large part of our energy is either gas (whose prices are soaring, and is also a contributor to climate change and needs phasing out) or energy bought via connecting cables to France and Scandinavia.

Now to be a bit more optimistic I should point out that the UK IS building a huge amount of wind and solar power, but these things take time so we are hopefully currently in a bit of lag, where spiking energy prices should be a reminder that you need to build power-plants in advance of when they are needed, not after a crisis… but the problem is we are both doing it too slowly, and doing it wrong.

Too Slow

From a climate change point of view, the UK is a disaster. Sure, there are truly horrendous countries regarding climate policy such as Australia, but we have nothing to brag about here. Our adoption rate of Electric Cars is pathetic compared to countries like Norway, we have no major electric vehicle or battery production facilities in the entire country, and we got rid of all subsidies for solar power. (My solar farm will be subsidy free). Take-up of solar power for residential users is way too slow, insulation of our leaky homes has not really got going, and the government of the day is basically completely disinterested.

But thats just the background. In practice, even if the people were 100% behind green energy (and endless rants on facebook and planning objections from people who consider wind turbines an ‘eye-sore’ show they are not), and even if companies were full-steam ahead on building out renewable energy, I don’t think we are vaguely going to make it. And not because of evil government policies, and not because of technology… but because of planning.

The solar farm I’m building is tiny (powering about 300 homes), but the planning process is absolutely horrendous. The application itself costs an absolute fortune, and the number of completely different, yet legally required processes you have to go through are frankly ridiculous. You need to check there are no birds nesting nearby, no protected bat species anywhere nearby, need to check the field is not of archaeological interest, need to do mock-ups for every person for miles around showing what they may be able to see on the distant horizon… And the process takes months…

…and then once you have that, you need a grid connection and… guess what? That costs a fortune (only tens of thousands if you are lucky), and the process takes months. Maybe 6 months. Yes really. To connect a solar farm to the power grid.

Now don’t get me wrong, in terms of actual work done by people actually doing things, its maybe a week. But the paperwork and pen-pushing can take six months. The whole pre-building process for a 1MW plant can be a year or two years.

We.Do.Not.Have.Time.For.This. as a country. Planning reform is not some minor boring topic, its of national strategic importance. None of our climate change goals will be met without it.

Doing It Wrong

There is a brilliant opportunity before us. The energy market in the UK (and probably every country) is undergoing vast, vast change. There is a great moment here where we can bring about really awesome changes to the way people get their energy, and almost every country on earth is ignoring it, probably due to big phat bribes from lobbyists.

Wind power and hydro power are special cases. They only really work at SCALE. Sure, you can put a tiny wind turbine up in a field if you are a farmer, but the efficiency is low. Its just physics, and the doubling of a blade length meaning 4x the swept area and thus energy captured. In other words, Huge wind turbines make more economic sense than small ones. Same with hydro power (as the fixed costs of putting in a system of any size are high).

But setting aside that special case we have something really cool…solar power. This is a solution we should be embracing massively, yes even in the UK, and here is why:

Solar power scales DOWN really well. The economies of scale when it comes to solar are not actually that massive. Sure, they exist, and if I had the money I would totally build a 2MW solar farm instead of a 1MW one… but they are small enough that its still WAY better for you to generate your own power from your own rooftop than it is to buy the power from someone else’s solar farm. Wholesale energy used to be £0.05. Current retail is £0.19.

Every rooftop having solar power is kinda awesome, especially if there is local (either community or individual home) battery storage. It creates what are called ‘micro-grids’ which keep a lot of the back-and-forth of energy flow off of the main grid, and reduces the extent to which the grid needs mega upgrades to deal with the closure of gas plants and uptake of EVs.

We have 10 solar panels in the garden. Not enough, by any means, but still a decent contribution. At their peak, they generate about 2kw per hour. My EV car battery is huge (85kwh) but its not like we use the whole range every day. Here is the recent output:

My panels are almost exactly 10 years old, so they are low efficiency, old-tech polycrystaline ones that are shaded for part of each day, so my output is nothing close to what you would get with brand new panels on a rooftop. My actual energy use is high (working from home, multiple PCs on all day, electric cooking, electric car, old house), so if I could possibly fit some other panels somewhere I would. (In fact the solar farm, is born from my frustration at not being able to have my own home energy independence).

Anyway, the point i am making is that home-solar is totally viable, and the beauty of it is that is DEMOCRATIZES the grid. This is the first time in generations that people have had the option of being able to say to the big multinational companies controlling energy “Thanks guys, but I generate my own power”. Even if you cannot go off-grid, you can reduce the amount of power you need to buy. Its a brilliant way of giving some power back to people instead of letting them choose between maybe 6 identical giant corporations who will still happily make a profit.

We should be boosting residential solar big time. Its also GREAT for employment, because the installation on rooftops is actually pretty labour intensive. Panels are cheap now, a lot of the cost of the installation is just people going up ladders carrying stuff and connecting stuff.

Where is the push in the UK for rooftop solar? Nowhere. I cannot remember the last time a government minister mentioned it, or encouraged it, or even acknowledged it exists. Where is the information campaign? where is the support?

If we don’t start making noise about the alternatives we will find that the ‘green energy future’ looks exactly like the coal energy past, with giant faceless corporations squeezing money from all of us, with a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude. There is an opportunity here for something way better, if only people looked into it.

Upgrading my home solar to solar edge

Yesterday I got my ground mount solar panels upgraded to solar edge. This is something people very rarely do, for very sensible reasons, so I thought I’d blog about it, as its something you wont ever find explained.

As some background, I have a 10-panel ground mount solar array in my driveway. We live in an very old ‘listed’ building in the UK so we cannot have roof mounted solar, but I’m a huge fan of green energy and wanted them anyway. 10 panels is all we could fit in the vaguely sunny part of the driveway so thats what we got, and the peak output is 2.1kw. Thats pretty low, and by Californian standards hilariously low, but this is the UK, and we don’t even have air-con (but I DO have an electric car to charge).

Because there is no other sunny part of the garden, and the neighbors are not likely to sell me extra space to put solar,m I have ended up starting a company to build a solar farm, but it still frustrates me that we are not energy independent at home. This is REALLY hard to do for an old house in the UK without a huge flat un-shaded garden. Thus I took it upon myself to try and squeeze as much efficiency out of our existing solar panels as possible. Enter solar edge!

Solar edge is a system that is almost ALWAYS fitted when you get new solar panels (if you opt for it, most don’t), and rarely done as a an upgrade. As an upgrade, it makes very sketchy financial sense, unless you are in my position, have variable shading, and are desperate for higher efficiency.

Solar edge fixes a problem in the way solar panels are wired, that almost no homeowners realize. They are wired so that power flows from one panel to the next, and the next, until eventually they reach the inverter, and get converted from DC to AC. What this means is, in practice, if you have 10 solar panels and solar panel number 1 is shaded, then the output of ALL TEN panels is reduced.

Yes really.

In almost all ground mount, and many rooftop installations, this does not matter. But if you have partial shading at some point during the day, or if you have constant shading of just one panel, you lose a massive amount of potential output. It also means that solar panels have to ideally all be facing the exact same way (not both sides of a roof, unless you literally live at the equator), and be the same type/output. Otherwise you are losing energy.

Solar edge is essentially a bunch of widgets (optimisers) that get wired onto the back of each panel. here is one on one of my panels:

All most all of that extra cabling and cable ties is due to the solar edge system, so its actually a lot of annoying, slow, fiddly work to do it. You need one of these for every single panel:

They are also not cheap, but frankly these days even if they cost $10, the main cost is getting an electrical engineer to come wire everything up. As ever, humans are the point at which renewable energy gets most of its costs these days… Anyway, you also get a new inverter, which is a lot smaller and simpler than many others. Like most inverters these days, it can talk to your wireless network and give you internet-based tracking of everything:

The beauty of this system for people with complex roofs is that a single inverter can now manage multiple groups of panels, even when one might be slightly shaded in the afternoon when the other is in full sunlight. The thing is, it also helps for stuff like partial shading due to clouds, or maybe in my case treetops which will affect coverage for one panel but not others. Check out this screenshot from the solar edge site:

Thats taken at a specific time this morning, around 10am, where either clouds or treetops have shaded a lot of the panels, except panels 4 and 8. In this case they get to produce 65w and 68w, instead of being limited to the 40w of that first panel. (its a cloudy day today, normally output would be way higher!)

What is especially cool about the site is it has a sort of ‘scrubber’ where you can slide through time on any day and see the output of each panel at each point in time. It will also show you total power for the day/week/month for each panel, so you can work out if one of the panels is maybe covered in bird crap or some fine dust, or if it has a technical problem and is failing. Its also apparently safer in case of electrical fires and faults.

This is all total nerdgasm silliness that only someone like me would ever actually do, because the extra output is likely about 10% and the costs are in the thousands, so although yup, I did get a spanking new inverter out of it, the actual economics of it make little sense in the UK, unless your inverter is failing anyway.

However, if you ARE thinking of getting solar, have a complex roof and some shading at parts of the day from a neighbors tree or a power-line or phone line, it may well be worth considering a solar edge setup.

Positech Energy. OH YES INDEED

So yeah… I have literally been wanting to type this for years, and I’m finally doing it. There is not THAT much concrete I can announce, but there are plans..real plans..and actual actions…

I’m a big renewable energy fan. If you follow this blog a lot you might know that I have solar panels in my garden (2.1kwp) and also have put some solar panels on a local school (as a charitable thing). I’m a big fan. I also have over the years invested in peer-to-peer networks that build solar farms, through sites like the westmill solar farm co-op and abundance. I got quite into it. It *can* be a reasonably good (and very safe & predictable) investment. I’ve wanted to do a lot more for years.

Luckily, I seem to be unusually good at running an indie game company, and also unusually good at investing the profits, which means I’m finally in a position to fulfill a very long-held dream and actually start a little solar energy company, which I have unimaginatively called Positech Energy. Its a real proper registered company, and everything! It even has an incredibly crap placeholder website that has almost zero content!

So…whats this for then?

I’m a big fan of solar farms, and have read about them a ridiculous amount., I always wanted to build one, not just invest in one someone else built. Frankly investment is easy, and lazy. You just read some financial documents and click a button. You could do it in the bath ffs. Its not the hard work. The hard work is the actual nitty gritty of where the tires hit the road and you have to talk to planning people, and local government, and solar installers, and energy companies, and regulators, and energy distribution companies… and about a bazillion other pieces of bureaucracy… This is what puts people off, and its PRECISELY because this is so awkward, and difficult, and stressful that I decided to do it…

I am aware of just how easy it is to be a ‘slacktivist’. Someone whose idea of activism is using a hashtag, or adding an emoji to their twitter profile. Thats all well and good, but its not even 0.000001% as effective as getting off your ass and physically making a change. I’ve already insulated my house to oblivion, put solar in the garden, bought an electric car, switched to a green electricity provider, and so on. I’ve done the green-investment thing, but really, its only one step up from slactivism. I haven’t really made an impact on the issue I care about: climate change and green energy’s part in all that.

So… I’m planning on building a solar farm. We have a potential site (actually potential site #2 now…#1 fell through), and are in the haggling stages. Its nowhere near me. I wont be able to nip out there to stare at it daily. It is in the UK though. Also… its kinda MASSIVE from the POV of me, but tiny from the POV of the big energy companies.

It turns out that roughly 1MWp is the size we are aiming for. So a peak output of about 1MW, which is quite a lot. over a year you generate maybe 1,000 MW(ish). For comparison to fill (from empty) a high performance Tesla model S is 100kw, so thats 10,000 cars recharged per year. Its also a lot of space, and solar panels. Thousands of them in fact.

The plan is also to incorporate some energy storage (effectively a shipping container or two full of lithium ion batteries wired into the grid). This allows you to get a better price for the power, as you can effectively ‘cache’ it for when its a good time to sell, and also you can sell ‘grid stabilization’ where you allow the national energy grid to rent space in your battery to dump excess power and then slurp it back a few minutes (or seconds) later if they are having trouble maintaining grid frequency. There is an open(ish) market for these kind of services.

This is going to take MONTHS to have any progress whatsoever. There will be a lot of staring at paperwork, and spreadsheets, and emails, and phonecalls/zoom meetings and bureaucracy and nonsense. I’ve already been driven MAD by the insane demands of simply opening a second bank account in a new company name… But hopefully it will be worth it.

Because I love stats, and the free market, and sharing, I intend to be very open about the technical and financial side once we actually have contracts signed. That might be a while…

(BTW I am still working 40+ hours/week on indie games with Democracy 4. This crazy adventure is my hobby. Its not a big time commitment)

Solar school photos!

My company (positech games) gave £10,000 to a local primary school to spend on solar panels, because the kids were really into environmental issues and had protested in our local town about it…and I thought, yup, go for it kids! They were installed yesterday so I went and took photos today by drone:

There are 32 panels, in 2 strings of 16, roughly 10.2 kwp. My panels at home are only 2.1 kwp :(. Really glad I did this.