Monday, 16 August 2010

The dangers of learning by Doing

Two American researchers, Peter Madsen and Vinit Desai examined firms, private and public, that launch rockets designed to place satellites into orbit around the Earth. They looked at all orbital launch attempts between the deployment of the first Sputnik in October 1957 and March 2004. Their research, reported in the Academy of Management Journal, showed that when a satellite fails the company learns from that failure and is more likely to succeed with future launches.

This is interesting and valuable research and we should apply the findings to the biggest problem we face today. That is pending economic and ecosystem collapse. The logic that this will be the outcome if we continue with business as usual is hard to dispute. But we seem to be determined to experience failure before we will learn. The research shows that to experience ecosystem collapse would indeed be a good opportunity to change our processes and learn to run society rather better.

This is the nature of humans to learn more from experience than lessons drawn from logical deductions. So, failed rocket launches proved a better teacher. For one satellite it is a big bill picked up by the insurance company; for our planet this is a learning experience we can ill afford.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Return to the English Riviera

The new Lifeguard lookout station on Bournemouth beach is an icon of sustainable living.

At a macro level, it is sign that British people may return to the English Riviera. It takes a lot less carbon for a Scot to take the train south, or for a southerner to drive to the end of the M3, than to fly to the beaches of Spain.

The experience will not be as exotic. The Punch and Judy show at the end of the pier is particularly British. So are the lines of beach huts, each larger enough for a few deckchairs, a selection of beach equipment and a camping stove on which to make tea. Each family can sit reading the newspaper, take an occasional swim and more often simply doze. Here it is easy to find British beer, the newspapers are today’s paper bought for the cover price and the girls speak English. On a sunny day, Bournemouth is better than Benidorm – if it is the simple pleasures you seek.

At the micro level, there is the lifeguard lookout station. It sits on the sand with solar panels providing the power for the public address system and radios. This example could be replicated across the town with every roof covered in solar panels providing the power for beer coolers, ice cream cabinets, televisions, amusement arcades and all the equipment needed for a beach holiday.

People will not flood back to Bournemouth whilst flying further south remains so cheap. The reliable sunshine of the Mediterranean is a strong draw but when flight prices rise to match the environmental impact, coming back to the English Riviera will not seem so bad.

Sustainable living may be different but need not be worse.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Indian Solar Aspirations

India is richer and more powerful than at any time since the days of the British Raj. Last week, the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, visited India, to a county now very much in control of its own affairs. He hoped to strengthen relations and secure access for British companies to a booming economy.

The hangover from British rule includes a British style bureaucracy and English as the common language to link this vast country of multiple local languages. The British also exported the beginnings of industrialization based on fossil fuels. For a country with reliable sunshine there is no need to copy the practice in northern Europe. As India makes its own way in the world, it is also embarking upon changing the way it generates energy.

India aims to generate 1,000 megawatts (MW) of solar power by 2013, according to The Times of India. The country currently produces less than 5 MW every year. The solar mission is part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change. The mission, if approved by the Cabinet, will entail three phases with the ambitious targets. A package has been proposed to reform the power sector that could lead to annual production of 20,000 MW from solar by 2020 if the first phase of the solar mission goes well.

In the first phase, between 2010 and 2013, the government is also proposing to generate 200 MW of off-grid solar power and cover 7 million square meters with solar collectors. By the end of the final phase in 2022, the government hopes to produce 20,000 MW of grid-based solar power, 2,000 MW of off-grid solar power and cover 20 million square meters with collectors.

Solar lighting systems would also be provided to 9,000 villages by providing soft loans which would be refinanced by the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency.

India is expected to be a powerhouse of the world economy in the 21st century. It is good to see India making such ambitious plans to navigate a path towards a more sustainable future.

Ministry of New & Renewable Energy