Elon Musk: Making Life Multiplanetary 2017

Below is the keynote speech at the 2017 International Astronautical Congress (IAC) from none other than Elon Musk of SpaceX.

Elon outlines his plan to build the “BFR” rocket which can be used to launch over 150 tonnes of payload into orbit at the lowest marginal cost per launch of any rocket in history. Key to that is the vertical propulsive landing approach, which is becoming so precise that the future versions of their rockets won’t even have legs to stabilise the landing. It is a beast of a rocket at 160m tall and 9m in diameter.

The BFR project has already commenced, with the tooling ordered and construction of the facilities underway.

Elon’s targets are:

  • Landing so precise that risk tends to zero and compares to commercial airlines
  • Establishing a Moon base (no propellant plant needed as they can be refuelled in upper Earth orbit and have enough to launch and land on Earth)
  • BFR able to dock with the International Space Station (ISS)
  • BFR able to refuel in space by docking with another BFR upper module and “sloshing” the fuel over using control thrusters to apply milli-g acceleration
  • 2022 for the first cargo mission to Mars (to scout for resources like H²0)
  • 2024 for the first cargo and crew mission to Mars (to build the propellant plant among other things)
  • BFR upper module able to fly from surface of Mars back to Earth as Martian gravity is weak enough to allow for a booster-free launch
  • Use of BFR between cities on Planet Earth could massively reduce journey times (e.g. 25 mins from LA to NYC)

Oh and here is my favourite little nugget of wisdom from Elon’s talk:

“On Mars, sunrise and sunset are blue and the day is red. It’s the opposite of Earth.”

My ICS Project with Raleigh International in Nicaragua: Coffee

5 years ago, I led a team of international volunteers on a climate change project in Nicaragua.

It was run by the British NGO, Raleigh International, under the UK government’s International Citizen Service (ICS) program.

Our project focused on improving the relationship between the communities of El Pajarito and El Tular (near Achuapa) and their environment.

Here is a short 5 minute video of me description our team’s project along with my host family!

Improbability Principle

I recently came across the fascinating world of Professor David Hand at my alma mater, Imperial College.

The work in question is the Improbability Principle: the concept that highly improbable events are commonplace.

You can watch a lecture by him on the topic here:

From his work on statistics, some fascinating real-world lessons can be learned.

The 5 Laws of the Improbability Principle

1. Law of Inevitability

One of the set of all possible outcomes must occur.

2. Law of Truly Large Numbers

An outcome which has a tiny chance of occurring becomes almost certain if you give it enough opportunities.

3. Law of Selection

We can make events as likely as we want if we choose after the event.

4. Law of the Probability Lever

if we slightly change the circumstances or assumptions we can dramatically change the probabilities.

5. Law of Near Enough

if you expand what you mean by a coincidence or improbable event sufficiently, you can make it as likely as you want.

Bonus: Borel’s Law

Professor Hand also refers to another law known as Borel’s Law. This law states that when the probability of an event is extremely small, one should act as if nothing will happen.

Conclusion

These laws are subtle but powerful. When viewed together, they tell us a lot about the way we view the world and how it can be manipulated.

YouTube’s bad UX design for music streaming

Problem

YouTube is one of the leading music streaming platforms on the web, with around 25% market share according to some sources. As a sharing platform, it’s inherently got access to a huge variety of content.

However, one thing that always bugs me about using YouTube to stream music is the inability to manage a spontaneous playlist from within one window.

In order to queue up the exact songs I want, I’m forced to open them as tabs and manually close each video and open the next when I want to hear a song. This creates a big drain on the resources of whatever device you are using.

Solution

While the obvious solution is simply to switch to Spotify, in some situations (such as not wanting to log in to Spotify on a public computer), using YouTube would be preferable.

Below I’ve listed three little tweaks that would give me exactly what I want.

FYI I’m not a developer so I have no idea of the technical feasibility of these suggestions within the current framework. If they haven’t been implemented, it’s possibly just

My proposed updates to YouTube UX

1. Sidebar search tool

A sidebar search tool would be ideal to search for your next song within the right-hand column while the video is still playing.

Results would be shown in the box immediately below and then added to the playlist by drag and drop or clicking an “Add to Queue” button.

2. Order change

There would be the ability to change the song order in the playlist with either drag and drop or arrows.

3. Remove song

It would be useful to have a button to remove a video from the Play Queue, perhaps one as simple as a small X in the top right corner of each video thumbnail.

Nesta Inventor Prize

Nesta, a UK-based innovation foundation, has just launched the Inventor Prize.

It’s a new challenge prize aiming to support and inspire inventors to come up with physical and digital solutions to 4 major challenges in UK society:

  1. Financial Inclusion
  2. Mental Health
  3. Ageing
  4. Air Quality

The finalists get a £5,000 grant and mentoring support to help develop and test their invention. At the end of the competition, the top prize is £50,000.

The inventor must have a working model of their idea and it must have a clear market to improve lives in the UK. The final version will be developed through the prize with extensive user testing.

The deadline for submission of ideas is 11 pm on 22nd October 2017.

If their previous Dynamic Demand Challenge is anything to go by, this new Inventor’s Prize will be a great little initiative to support upcoming inventors.

Upgrading Our Energy System: Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan from BEIS – my thoughts

Early in 2017, the UK Government called for evidence and views on how to move the UK to a smarter and more flexible energy system. They received over 200 responses and I am informed that the vast majority related to energy storage.

The UK Government took the views into account and have produced a plan of 29 actions that BEIS, Ofgem, and industry will take for the future of the UK energy system called: Upgrading Our Energy System: Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan. I’ve sketched out some of my main thoughts on the document below.

Introduction of an energy storage licence to UK grid code

Tantalisingly, the UK Government plans to recognise the overwhelming noise from industry and amend the Electricity Act 1989 to include a definition of storage, but frustratingly only as a subset of the generation asset class. It will be based on the Electricity Storage Network definition and Ofgem will begin consulting on this in the summer of 2017.

The licence changes will allow storage to be exempt from final consumption levies and will de-risk investments that co-locate alongside renewables. Ofgem will improve the connections process and will use financial incentives to make the DNOs do more to help their customers.

In some ways, it is great news that the Government is finally making this move. However, by merely adding it as a sub-set of generation instead of making it a separate asset class, I interpret this solution as a bit of a bodge-job.

Creating a separate asset class would have opened up a much deeper discussion about which organisations can own the asset (i.e. can DNOs? Can National Grid?). By not creating a separate class, it seems that this vital conversation is off the cards entirely. Indeed this is consistent with Ofgem’s view (plainly reiterated in the document) that “network companies should not own or operate storage”, as they think it will “impede the development of a competitive market for storage and flexibility services”.

In my mind, this is the wrong conclusion. For me, DNOs are the perfect customer for energy storage assets. They already own the wires on the network that do the spatial arbitrage of taking energy from places of low price (supply) to places of high price (demand). Surely it follows that DNOs should be trusted to do the same with the temporal arbitrage that storage provides?

If DNOs will be continuing to make decisions about investing in the capital equipment of wires, transformers, and the rest, then surely they should be allowed to own storage at the same time, as it is being lined up as a potential rival for these traditional assets ( one of the major touted benefits of storage being “Transmission and Distribution Upgrade Cost Deferral”)?

Removal of other barriers to energy storage and Demand Side Response (DSR)

Apparently, Ofgem has already consulted on a proposed Targeted Charging Review (TCR). The consultation stated Ofgem’s views that storage should only pay one set of balancing system charges (not two as currently) and that storage should not pay the “demand residual” element of network charges at transmission and distribution level. This is obviously a sensible move as it removes a major source of unfairness and will make the business case for storage projects a lot healthier.

Ofgem are looking at giving aggregators access to the Balancing Mechanism (BM) and clarifying the rules for DSR and energy storage to participate non-exclusively in the Capacity Market (CM). This is really great news for the UK energy market. Firstly, clarification of the CM rules will finally allow the much-talked-about revenue stacking that underpins almost all energy storage projects.

Secondly, allowing aggregators access to the BM will boost DSR and energy storage as it will allow them to compete with traditional generation in the provision of this vital service to the System Operator, National Grid. Professor Goran Strbac of my almer mater Imperial College has frequently spoken about the potentially huge benefits that energy storage assets could provide to the BM, so this development would pave the way for his predictions to become reality.

Removing barriers to smart meters and “time of use” tariffs

The document refers to the UK Government’s commitment to ensuring that every household and small business is offered a smart energy meter by the end of 2020.

To make the most of these hard assets, domestic half hourly settlement of electricity payment has been possible on an elective basis since June 2017 and Ofgem will consult on whether it will be made mandatory. If so, it would be dovetailed to coincide with the smart meter roll-out.

Intriguingly, these two developments would allow me to introduce my PowerCube product idea if I decided to move forward with it, as the smart meter and half hourly metering requirements were the two major limiting factors holding back the product’s successful launch.

The document talks about the need for consumer protection, standards, and cybersecurity protection as part of the smart energy revolution. In an increasingly interconnected and rapidly-changing world, these factors will be extremely important if the benefits are to be safely secured.

Recognition of smart energy entrepreneurship

On a final note, it was great to see the inset case studies of various innovative smart energy startups such as VCharge and Open Utility included in the paper.

It was particularly great to see Upside Energy mentioned, which is a company that formed as part of the Nesta Dynamic Demand Challenge competition that I supported as a mentor back in 2014. Graham and the team were one of the winners, so it’s encouraging to see them still going from strength to strength.

GRASP: Getting Results and Solving Problems

What is GRASP?

I recently stumbled across a great framework called GRASP: Getting Results and Solving Problems.

It’s from the Comino Foundation, a foundation set up to support innovation practice. It was set up by Demetrius “Dimitri” Comino, a Greek-Australian engineer and entrepreneur that founded Dexion after settling in the UK post-university. There’s a great biography including a history of his businesses and foundation available here.

The framework can also apparently be referred to as: Getting Results and Seizing Potential  “because it became most effective in helping people to achieve their full potential” according to the Foundation.

How does it work?

Here are the steps as described on the Foundation’s website:

  1. Define your purpose in terms of what you want to achieve
    • NB. Not what you want to do!
  2. When defining purpose, keep asking the question ‘Why?’
    • Ask “What do I really want to achieve?”
  3. Imagine in detail how it will be when you have succeeded
    • Use this picture of success to establish the criteria by which you will know if you have succeeded.
  4. Examine alternative means by which the desired result might be achieved
    • Never allow yourself to think that there is only one way to succeed.
  5. Choose what seems to be the best option and make a plan.
  6. Carry through your chosen plan.
  7. Repeat the process to see if you can do better or have redefined your purpose, which often happens.
  8. Review the process at each stage.

Comments on the framework

I really like this framework as it includes several key tools.

Firstly, the use of Why? is drilling down past our pre-conceived notions and limiting beliefs in the same way as the Five Whys methodology.

Secondly, it is goal focus and not activity focused. This primes us to discard our limited thinking to date and to consider the most efficient way possible to get to our goals.

Thirdly, it contains an element of measurement which is key for the successful completion of any plan.

Finally, the use of visualisation not only makes it real but allows us to actually understand what the goal will feel like when we have achieved it. This useful for motivation, but it is also useful when we take into consideration which of our 6 Human Needs it is actually helping us achieve. This deeper understanding will help us to get closer to what we really need to achieve in order to satisfy our core needs.

My version

I’ve created my own version which reads:

  1. What do I want to achieve?
    • Why?
  2. Visualise in detail the completed goal.
    • Use this vision to establish the success criteria.
  3. Examine alternative means to achieve the desired result.
    • There is always another way!
  4. Choose the best option and make a plan.
  5. Execute.
  6. Repeat.

Download template

You can also download my version of their questions in a handy PDF template here:

GRASP Getting Results and Solving Problems template.

My talk at Hello Tomorrow: The Future of Energy

In November 2016 I had the privilege of being invited to speak an event in Turkey on The Future of Energy.

It was run by Hello Tomorrow, an NGO that aims to empower early-stage science startups, and coordinated by my ex-IEA colleague, Timur Topalgoekceli, at the Sabanci Centre in Istanbul.

It was very exciting to see such a high-level panel of speakers from the Turkish public and private sector, showing that the clean energy revolution has a dynamic future in Turkey.

I was one of a group of innovative energy technology startups that were invited to present to the conference to spark debate about what the future of the energy system could look like, and how could Turkey position itself to capitalise on this and influence the upcoming change.

My talk starts from 59:00 minutes into this video. To be honest, I’m not happy with my performance as it was quite a different stage to the ones I’m used to presenting on!

It was very much a TED-style podium with no lecture to hide behind, so my nerves get the better of me during the talk.

No matter: it was a great learning experience and it was a fantastic event to meet the movers and shakers of the Istanbul clean energy scene.

Sale of Green Investment Bank

In my opinion, one of the great Liberal Democrat achievements of the Lib Dem/Conservative Coalition UK Government of 2010-2015 was the establishment of the Green Investment Bank (GIB).

The GIB was set up with UK public money to “back green projects on commercial terms and mobilise other private sector capital into the UK’s green economy”. It invests in a variety of green UK projects such as energy efficiency, waste/bioenergy, and offshore wind. By June 2017 it had invested into 99 projects, committing £3.4bn into the UK’s green economy (much of that from private co-investors).

As a Brit who is dedicated to greening the global economy, I was proud to see this excellent development and excited to think about the huge potential impact that it would have.

I envisaged a British version of KfW, the German Government-owned bank with over €489.1bn of total assets and annual revenues of over €74.1bn (in 2014). KfW has had a transformation impact on the German green economy and wider economy. It is 90% financed by the capital markets, issuing bonds that are guaranteed by the Federal Government (and therefore have an interest rate that is extremely low).

I was therefore shocked to hear that the Conservative government (2015-2017) had agreed on the £2.3bn sale of the GIB to Macquarie, an Australian infrastructure investment bank. Many have criticised the sale, saying it has been sold off on the cheap and that the bank will not stick to the green investment mantra after the obligatory 3 year period.

Apparently, the GIB chair was in favour of the sale as they believed it was important to get new investment to grow the bank’s impact and secure its long-term future. How true that is (or how much it is someone protecting their job/position) I can’t tell, but I can somewhat see the logic.

What I find odd is the fact that the GIB would surely be a key channel that the Government could use to deploy capital to support their flagship Industrial Strategy policy. This Strategy was formulated to stimulate technology and green businesses so that the UK economy is well positioned to grow and be globally competitive for years to come. Selling the GIB removes a crucial funding dispersal mechanism that could have addressed barriers to green economic development and buttressed the Government’s efforts.

Additionally, I would have thought that leaving the GIB in public hands would be ideal for the UK Government’s commitments under the Paris Agreement and the commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on international aid. Having a bank focused on clean energy projects would have been an ideal channel to deploy capital into projects aligned with these commitments.

This year, there were rumours that the sale could be abandoned in favour of an IPO. That appeared to be the preferred option of the second favourite bidder, Sustainable Development Capital. Whether the recent election miscalculation of Theresa May has interfered with it remains to be seen.

PowerSensr, the smart voltage logger

Back in 2014, I worked on one idea that had been in my mind since my first graduate job at powerPerfector.

Problem

powerPerfector was (before its pre-pack administration) a voltage optimisation technology company that helped buildings to become more energy efficient. By optimising the voltage supply to a building, you can minimise the amount of energy wasted by the building’s electrical devices.

One of the main stages in the sales process was the collection of voltage data at the site. powerPerfector used to post the client a voltage recorder such as a Fluke VR1710* data logger (“logger”). However, this process was very slow as it would take a few days for the logger to arrive, a week to collect the data, then a few days to post the logger back, before downloading the data back at pP HQ.

This was a best case scenario: frequently loggers would go missing at client sites, or they would be forgotten about or even sent back with no data on them. In addition, they required quite a lot of up-front investment to procure, meaning that the number of loggers powerPerfector could send out was limited and therefore delays were even greater.

Solution

I wanted to build a cheaper data logger with the ability to upload the data recorded directly into the cloud. This would allow much faster data collection and due diligence of sites, but also they could even be left in situ to help building managers ensure that their sites are compliant with power quality regulations.

Finally, leaving a logger in situ that can broadcast the current voltage level (of the lowest voltage part of the site) could have even been used in tandem with a dynamic powerPerfector (previously known as a pP+). The logger could have been used to provide a continuous signal to the control unit of the pP+ so that the voltage level would be best optimised for the whole building.

Product concept 

The working title for my product concept was “PowerSensr”.

I essentially wanted to build a single phase voltage and power quality logger similar to the Fluke VR1710* that had the ability to upload data into the cloud in near real-time.

I spoke with an electrical engineer to scope out the most appropriate technologies for what I wanted to do and to get a rough cost per unit. We came up with the following product specs:

  • WiFi for connectivity (3G to be investigated during market research but unlikely to be viable due to costs).
  • Amazon Web Services for the cloud platform.
  • Low internal memory requirements.
  • USB connection to be explored for backup purposes.
  • Low price point (£25-£125) to compete against £650 for the Fluke VR1710*.
  • Simple dashboard at first.
  • 1 second resolution on the measurements.

We discussed building a prototype, but the guy was too busy to help. However, he suggested that I could build the initial prototype based on Raspberry Pi with some guidance from him. Once the concept was tested I could contract the design from organisations such as Cambridge Consultants if I raised enough funding to pay their fees.

Sensr Initial Conceptual Design

PowerSensr Conceptual Design by Jack Raison, 2014

I was very lucky in getting the initial form concept designed by the award-winning graduate design engineer, Jack Raison.

Jack took the high-level design brief to produce the render of the device in the inset picture (left).

Reviewing the idea

I then used this information to review the suitability of the idea using the New Business Road Map.

First, I scanned the marketplace to assess the competitive landscape. The main competitor was Fluke with their Fluke VR1710*. It has many features (except cloud-upload functionality), is very robust but is quite pricey at around £650 at the time for bulk orders. Also, Fluke have a dominant market position as they are a well-known brand in the sector.

Having spoken to several distributors and resellers of this sort of equipment, I realised that buyers have a major focus on brand and quality for reliability. Building this trust for PowerSensr would be one major obstacle if I decided to move forward. Additionally, Fluke were in the process of launching Fluke Connect to bring cloud connection and monitoring features to some devices. The VR1710 was not one of them at the time, however.

I also spoke to 38 Zeros about their CloudLogger device. This was very interesting, as they operate the devices over the phone network and charge $199 for the devices with a 1 year contract of $15 per month (presumably the “Nespresso” business model of making a loss on the hardware to lower the sticker shock of the purchase price).

CloudLogger is focussed on energy consumption for Building Managers rather than voltage or power quality. Intriguingly, they only emailed the data to the customer rather than providing a dashboard solution as customers often have significant dashboard facilities already for their sites.

Once satisfied that there was nothing on the market that could provide what I wanted, I tested the concept for my product with target customers and organisations that would potentially partner with me to sell it.

The first ones were the distributions and sales organisations for this sort of kit. I was shocked to hear that they would only ever sell about 1 or 2 a month as this was quite a niche bit of kit. He also stated that people only really trust one or two brands in the marketplace, as building services engineers are very particular about their bit of kit.

I also spoke to a Director at a built environment consultancy who I knew from a previous role. He was surprised that I was spending any time on a product in this area, as he thought that “nobody really cares about power quality of voltage”.

Indeed, Ilian Iliev at EcoMachines Ventures asked me a great question during a conversation at one of his Office Hours that really stuck with me: “What is the value of the “cake” here and how much of a slice will you charge?“.

It occurred to me that, although voltage problems will only get worse as RE and switch-mode IT loads get added to the grid, the reality is that most people don’t really care about measuring this too much. Therefore, the size of the “cake” (i.e. the value provided to customers by this solution) was small.

The only real customers I had in mind for this technology were powerPerfector and the rival Voltage Optimisation/Management companies. However, pP went into a pre-pack administration in 201X and EMS Powerstar went through tough times after a massive collapse in the market.

Additionally, the risk that Fluke’s Fluke Connect project could encroach on this space seemed like a major risk even if I could build a device that could work at the accepted price point. Their brand awareness would blow me out the water.

I therefore came to the conclusion that this was not a big enough market to chase. In fact, I would even go so far as to state that I had a solution and was looking for a problem. So in late 2014 I decided to bin the project.