Technology useful in tackling loneliness in the elderly, report suggests

March 20th, 2019 no comment

Despite the possibilities that technology affords, a significant number of older people are not confident in using it – including accessing the internet – the report found.

It also assessed the financial implications of loneliness in older people and calculated that this resulted in a £1.8bn annual cost to the UK economy. It is estimated that around 1.5 million people above the age of 50 suffer from chronic loneliness.

GPs and health-service practitioners should be able to prescribe technology such as wearable devices and monitoring systems to tackle loneliness among older people.

A strategy to address the issue, including doctors prescribing dancing and cookery classes, was launched in October last year, but the Government is now being urged to include technology-focused solutions such as wearable devices, monitoring systems or classes providing lessons on how to use technology.

The research also suggests that the Government should launch a consultation on supporting independent living, given the potential benefits that smart devices can offer.

“Loneliness doesn’t just have an economic cost – it has a profound human cost, too, and can be hugely damaging to our health and happiness,” said Matt Hancock, UK health secretary.

“It affects people of all ages and backgrounds and is something any of us or our loved ones could experience during our lifetimes. So it is important we do everything we can to reduce loneliness and isolation and provide help to those who need it.

“As people, we all need to feel part of something. This basic instinct of belonging and community is central to happiness and is at the heart of our work across the health and care system.

“We launched our first-ever loneliness strategy last year and through our Ageing Society Grand Challenge we want to harness innovation to tackle loneliness and support healthy ageing. New technologies and services that can help people stay connected and independent will play an important role in this.”

According to data from the Office for National Statistics, a third of adults over the age of 65 identify themselves as only “a little confident” or “not at all confident” in their ability to use electronic devices for essential online activities.

Meanwhile, older people suffering from loneliness are nearly three times more likely to suffer depression than similar-aged individuals who are not lonely, previous studies have suggested. They are also 1.9 times more likely to develop dementia in the following 15 years.

“Loneliness is one of the most pressing public health challenges we face and technology has a huge role to play in bringing people together,” said Mims Davies, loneliness minister.

“Businesses, charities and government are working together to reduce loneliness and build more connected communities. Vodafone’s work highlights how digital tech can be a part of the solution.”

The eccentric engineer: How the elevator shaft came before the elevator

March 15th, 2019 no comment

Not all great engineering inventions come out of the blue. Sometimes it seems inevitable that a ‘thing’ will be invented soon and those with foresight can prepare for it. That’s just what industrialist Peter Cooper was doing when he built his Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science – now one of the USA’s leading engineering colleges.

The original plans for the building in New York contained something of mystery. Cooper insisted that an empty shaft run the entire height of the building, accessed at each floor by doors. This might have seemed a little reckless to many. Certainly, walking through those doors would get you to the basement quicker than the stairs – but the arrival might be your last. Cooper, though, could see the future. As buildings got taller, he was betting on the invention of the elevator.

Of course, there had been lifting devices before. Cranes and winches had been in use for millennia for lifting materials from mines, and loading and unloading ships. Archimedes invented an elevator using a man-powered capstan and pulleys in the 3rd century BC. In the 11th century, Andalusian astronomer Ali Ibn Khalaf al-Muradi included an elevator mechanism in his ‘Book of Secrets in the Results of Ideas’, though this was little more than a type of windlass that could already be found in medieval castles and cathedrals. However, very few of these were ever designed to carry people.

There were perhaps two main reasons why the passenger elevator had been thought of, but not built, before the mid-19th century. First, very few tall buildings existed before the 19th century – certainly not ones that required regular access to the upper floors by large numbers of people. Obviously, there were other reasons to build one. Louis XV of France had a personal elevator – his ‘flying chair’ – installed in Versailles so he could travel to his mistress’s bedroom out of sight of the prying eyes of courtiers. Ivan Kiblin had installed a similar device in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg in Russia in 1793, involving a screw mechanism attached to a chair, enabling the aged and rather large Catherine the Great to access the upper floors of her palace.

Yet for most people the stairs were just fine, particularly when it comes to the second reason why ‘flying chairs’ hadn’t taken off. Elevators were dangerous. Being suspended in a shaft by a single cable attached to a winch mechanism was putting a lot of faith in a small amount of technology. Winches regularly failed, the cables parted and the load plummeted to the ground. This seemed like an excellent reason to take the stairs.

Fortunately for Cooper, just as he was planning his Union, a former wagon driver and amateur engineer, Elisha Otis, was having a revolutionary thought. Life had been hard for Otis and all his business ventures had failed, usually due to factors far beyond his control. In 1851, aged 40, he got a job converting an old sawmill in New York into a bedstead factory and was faced with a huge clearing-up job. He thought about installing hoists to help clear the upper floors, but these often failed, sometimes catastrophically, so his mind turned to making them safe.

With his two sons he began designing a ‘safety elevator’. His wonderfully simple device consisted of an old wagon spring attached under the roof of the hoist platform and connected to the lifting cable above. Normally the tension in the cable kept the spring closed, but were the cable to snap the spring would open, engaging saw-toothed ratchets on both sides of the lift shaft and bringing the elevator to a stop.

The 1853 World’s Fair offered an ideal advertising opportunity. In the New York Crystal Palace, Otis had himself hoisted high in the air on his elevator platform. With great showmanship, he then ordered the hemp rope holding him aloft cut with an axe. The crowd gasped, but the platform only dropped a few inches before locking securely in place.

Otis’s business was also secure and, from then on, orders doubled every year. As the safety elevator went on to prove itself as the safest form on transport on Earth, so the skyscrapers of New York could begin to grow.

However, despite already having an elevator shaft, the Cooper Union would not be the first building to get Otis’s machine. Cooper had assumed the most efficient shape for the shaft would be cylindrical and Otis’s elevators were square. It would be several years before Otis had the time to design a bespoke elevator for the Cooper Union.

The eccentric engineer: How the elevator shaft came before the elevator

March 15th, 2019 no comment

Not all great engineering inventions come out of the blue. Sometimes it seems inevitable that a ‘thing’ will be invented soon and those with foresight can prepare for it. That’s just what industrialist Peter Cooper was doing when he built his Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science – now one of the USA’s leading engineering colleges.

The original plans for the building in New York contained something of mystery. Cooper insisted that an empty shaft run the entire height of the building, accessed at each floor by doors. This might have seemed a little reckless to many. Certainly, walking through those doors would get you to the basement quicker than the stairs – but the arrival might be your last. Cooper, though, could see the future. As buildings got taller, he was betting on the invention of the elevator.

Of course, there had been lifting devices before. Cranes and winches had been in use for millennia for lifting materials from mines, and loading and unloading ships. Archimedes invented an elevator using a man-powered capstan and pulleys in the 3rd century BC. In the 11th century, Andalusian astronomer Ali Ibn Khalaf al-Muradi included an elevator mechanism in his ‘Book of Secrets in the Results of Ideas’, though this was little more than a type of windlass that could already be found in medieval castles and cathedrals. However, very few of these were ever designed to carry people.

There were perhaps two main reasons why the passenger elevator had been thought of, but not built, before the mid-19th century. First, very few tall buildings existed before the 19th century – certainly not ones that required regular access to the upper floors by large numbers of people. Obviously, there were other reasons to build one. Louis XV of France had a personal elevator – his ‘flying chair’ – installed in Versailles so he could travel to his mistress’s bedroom out of sight of the prying eyes of courtiers. Ivan Kiblin had installed a similar device in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg in Russia in 1793, involving a screw mechanism attached to a chair, enabling the aged and rather large Catherine the Great to access the upper floors of her palace.

Yet for most people the stairs were just fine, particularly when it comes to the second reason why ‘flying chairs’ hadn’t taken off. Elevators were dangerous. Being suspended in a shaft by a single cable attached to a winch mechanism was putting a lot of faith in a small amount of technology. Winches regularly failed, the cables parted and the load plummeted to the ground. This seemed like an excellent reason to take the stairs.

Fortunately for Cooper, just as he was planning his Union, a former wagon driver and amateur engineer, Elisha Otis, was having a revolutionary thought. Life had been hard for Otis and all his business ventures had failed, usually due to factors far beyond his control. In 1851, aged 40, he got a job converting an old sawmill in New York into a bedstead factory and was faced with a huge clearing-up job. He thought about installing hoists to help clear the upper floors, but these often failed, sometimes catastrophically, so his mind turned to making them safe.

With his two sons he began designing a ‘safety elevator’. His wonderfully simple device consisted of an old wagon spring attached under the roof of the hoist platform and connected to the lifting cable above. Normally the tension in the cable kept the spring closed, but were the cable to snap the spring would open, engaging saw-toothed ratchets on both sides of the lift shaft and bringing the elevator to a stop.

The 1853 World’s Fair offered an ideal advertising opportunity. In the New York Crystal Palace, Otis had himself hoisted high in the air on his elevator platform. With great showmanship, he then ordered the hemp rope holding him aloft cut with an axe. The crowd gasped, but the platform only dropped a few inches before locking securely in place.

Otis’s business was also secure and, from then on, orders doubled every year. As the safety elevator went on to prove itself as the safest form on transport on Earth, so the skyscrapers of New York could begin to grow.

However, despite already having an elevator shaft, the Cooper Union would not be the first building to get Otis’s machine. Cooper had assumed the most efficient shape for the shaft would be cylindrical and Otis’s elevators were square. It would be several years before Otis had the time to design a bespoke elevator for the Cooper Union.

Hands-on review: Tefal Cake Factory

March 14th, 2019 no comment

Tefal’s Cake Factory is billed as the UK’s first ‘precision cake maker’ and, casting around for alternatives, it’s easy to see why. The only even vaguely comparable products are smaller machines that look more like sandwich toasters, with metal plates and no temperature controls.

The Tefal, on the other hand, is much more versatile and designed to be safe enough that children can prepare and then bake a dessert all by themselves while you make dinner. There are five automatic programs, plus there’s a free app with more than 200 recipes. If the thought of cake and using a tablet doesn’t get the kids cooking, nothing will!

The attractive white and fuchsia machine takes up roughly the same worktop space as a slow cooker. It comes with three cooking trays: one is an aluminium non-stick for larger tray bakes such as brownies, the others are both silicone with a rigid reinforced rim so the contents won’t tip out when you lift them. One is for six small rectangular cakes, the other for six round ones. The latter is the most innovative; the cups collapse for storage which also means you can pop them up to gently ease out soft-centred puddings such as lava cakes. More on that later.


Tefal Cake Factory control panel

Image credit: Tefal

Controls are simple: use the plus and minus buttons to select from the five programs (tray cake, cupcakes, lava cakes, meringues, chocolate melting) or a manual setting. On manual, you can pick a temperature from 40°C to 240°C in 5°C increments. Cooking time is from 2 to 120 minutes. There’s no timer delay.

Setting it up, we felt the 90cm power cable was too short. Also, the handle at the back makes it easier to lift the machine to some extent, but if you carry it as you would a briefcase and the lid comes open, the trays could fall out. It would be better if you could securely lock the lid when not in use.

Our junior testers (aged 10 and 11) couldn’t wait to try it out and chose to make chocolate lava cakes. This uses two of the Tefal’s programs. First, you melt the chocolate and butter in the aluminium tray. The kids found the controls intuitive enough and it was a very safe way for them to melt ingredients, compared with the boiling water of a bain marie or the guesswork of zapping in the microwave.

The melting worked perfectly and took six minutes, which was a bit slower than other methods but safer. That said, the children found it tricky to pick up the hot metal tray safely in order to tip the contents into a mixing bowl. Soft grips at the sides of the tray would have helped.

The next step was to mix all the ingredients together. This seemed well explained to an adult but the instructions need to be even more idiot-proof if children are to cook independently. My ten-year-old honestly checked with me that he should crack open the eggs, not just throw them in whole. Fair point. One day, there might be a machine that does this bit for you, too.

The combined ingredients were then poured into the tray with six round, pop-up silicone moulds and cooked for 16 minutes. The machine beeped loudly and persistently when done, so we heard it from the next room.

Again, handling the hot tray was the only challenge, but this time at least the contents were more solid. We could pick up the tray with one hand and push up the underside of each mould with a tea towel to release the cakes without damaging them.

The results were pleasantly gooey in the centre and very rich and chocolatey. They’re not large, but one with a dollop of ice cream melting on top is plenty.


Tefal Cake factory with cakes

Image credit: Tefal

There’s a recipe booklet included, but the free Cake Factory app is much more fun. You can browse for recipes or tell the app what’s in the fridge and get suggestions. Start a recipe and it will talk you through it, step by step. There’s even an optional timer where relevant, although the machine beeps when it’s finished anyway. The app is simply for recipes and they aren’t visual – the children would have enjoyed photos and even videos of techniques – but it’s engaging and works well. Recipes include vegan and gluten-free options and desserts such as crumbles and meringues, as well as cakes and muffins.

In all, we’d consider this a good gift for keen young cooks who would like to cook small quantities of desserts independently. It’s pricey but feels fun and it’s safer than reaching into an oven. You could definitely let children cook the afters alongside you with minimal supervision while you make the mains. They will enjoy the app and teach themselves the basics of cooking. Afterwards, you can teach them to do the dishes – the good news is that the pans are very easy to clean.

£169.99 tefal.com

Alternatives

American Originals 3 in 1 Treat Maker

Good value for a small machine that looks like a sandwich toaster, but has interchangeable non-stick plates for cooking four doughnuts, nice cake pops or a solitary waffle.

£29.99 argos.co.uk

Global Gizmos 51390 Fun 6 Brownie Maker

Pretty in pink, this cooks six small brownies and promises a cool touch handle, but the non-stick plates themselves will be hot, so it won’t be much safer than cooking in an oven.

£16.98 amazon.co.uk

Gourmet Gadgetry Vintage Cupcake and Muffin Maker

This cooks seven mini cupcakes in just a few minutes, with easy-to-clean, non-stick plates top and bottom.

£25.99 amazon.co.uk

Massive solar storm could devastate infrastructure, scientists warn

March 12th, 2019 no comment

The Earth is constantly being bombarded by cosmic particles, but sometimes the intensity of this ramps up considerably when a solar storm sweeps past. Solar storms are made up of high-energy particles unleashed from the Sun by explosions on the star’s surface.

Three solar “super-storms” are believed to have occurred in the last 3,000 years, with a very powerful one occurring in 660BCE, followed by two other events in 775CE and 994CE.

The researchers from Lund University drilled samples of ice, or ice cores, to find clues about previous storms. The cores come from Greenland and contain ice formed over the past 100,000 years (approximately).

While the previous storms were largely inconsequential as far as humans are concerned, the 21st-century’s reliance on technology would mean that a similarly intense storm today could be devastating.

It could have a highly destructive effect on power grids, communications, GPS systems and information technology, the scientists warned.

The fast-moving charged particles can quickly wipe out sensitive satellite circuits and cause surges in electricity grids, triggering widespread power cuts.

Two severe solar storms in modern times caused extensive power cuts in Quebec, Canada, in 1989 and Malmo, Sweden, in 2003, but both of these events were dwarfed by a solar storm that occurred in 660BCE.

Professor Raimund Muscheler, from Lund University in Sweden, said: “If that solar storm had occurred today, it could have had severe effects on our high-tech society.

“That’s why we must increase society’s protection against solar storms. Our research suggests that the risks are currently underestimated. We need to be better prepared.”

In 2015, Nasa launched a Sun monitoring satellite designed to give advanced warning against future solar storms. 

Market failures could see Britain suffering five-day power cuts

March 11th, 2019 no comment

Even in industrialised nations in the 21st century, the sort of electricity-grid system failure that’s been seen in parts of Australia in recent years is not uncommon. In the UK, the risk of total blackout or significant partial shutdown of the transmission network is increasing.

The rise in renewables is making failure more probable. Wind farm growth creates frequency-management issues arising from reduced system inertia, while declining network strength can cause longer, stability-risking, fault-clearance times. Then there are the challenges to match supply to demand following sudden variations in wind generation and the reduced one-hour notice of input variations from European interconnectors. Other risk factors include grid substation failure, lightning or overhead line faults and cyber attack.

For grid recovery following widespread collapse, a process known as ‘black starting’ is deployed where the UK is split into different areas. Being able to rapidly black-start the country is a public health priority and, rightly, a public expectation, but in Scotland, and probably London, it is unrealisable; it would take several days to re-establish networks. So serious has the issue become that I understand it has attracted the attention of the government’s Cobra civil contingencies committee.

Professional expectation for Scotland to black-start has now, I’ve been told, risen to five days, largely as a result of large-scale, dispatchable, on-demand generation being replaced with intermittent distributed renewables. London has experienced a similar progressive local reduction and will also take longer to recharge since much of its high-voltage grid uses cable and not overhead line transmission.

The Scottish Black Start Restoration Working Group reviewed its procedures in September 2018. These are based on local joint restoration plans that would see transmission operators powering up and stabilising local transmission islands, which would then have to be synchronised and progressively interconnected.

The group’s report warns that, following the 2016 closure of the Longannet coal-fired power station in Fife, there would be ‘severe delays’ to restoration. Peterhead gas-fired station, now Scotland’s only high-powered and high-inertia (essential to stabilise frequency) dispatchable power station, is seeking planning permission to install 31 diesel generators, capable of full power for seven days, to secure its restart. However, it has only half the capacity of Longannet and couldn’t restart all of Scotland without input from the pumped-storage capacity at Cruachan and Foyers and, crucially, from England, which arrangement is untested.

Nor would wind farms be able to black-start the grid. Main generator types in use need external power to start generating; some more recent designs are self-starting, but connecting to a dead grid via long offshore AC cable interconnections remains an unsolved problem as the turbines cannot provide enough reactive power to recharge what are, in effect, large capacitors. In any case, they wouldn’t be able to meet National Grid requirements for block loading, grid voltage or frequency control.

The first local joint grid-restoration activity is to disconnect all offshore generation. Onshore wind farms can be progressively reintroduced once the grid has been re-established, but only providing they are not frozen and there is wind. As with all nuclear stations, Scotland’s Hunterston and Torness could only be reconnected into a stable grid, this taking several days.

The new £2.4bn HVDC interlinks from Wales to the Hunterston area and from Moray Firth to Spittal have not been engineered to support black start as they do not include the latest voltage source converter (VSC) technology and cannot commutate into a dead network. Scotland is now literally at the end of the line and critical restart power would arrive only once the north of England grid had been re-established. Similarly, for London, the two HVDC interconnector links to France and the Netherlands cannot support black start.

National Grid confirmed in 2016 that the restoration strategy “must be adjusted” as “system strength and the number of black-start providers declines” and that black-start costs are “anticipated to increase by a 7-10 factor” over the next 10 years. While, like Ofgem, it favours the provision of up to seven new VSC interconnectors between Britain and the European mainland, these are not yet built and power availability from them would depend on market conditions. The UK is a net importer of electricity. And then there is Brexit…

The situation is clearly untenable. It exemplifies the need for proper governance of the UK electricity system to replace the present disparate, profit-driven weakening of the grid that ‘the market’ has caused.

Several of the engineering institutions are advocating change, including the IET, the IMechE and the Institution of Engineers in Scotland. We need to be heard.

David Watson is a chartered electrical engineer who before retirement was manager of projects at Foster Wheeler Energy, based in Glasgow.

Market failures could see Britain suffering five-day power cuts

March 11th, 2019 no comment

Even in industrialised nations in the 21st century, the sort of electricity-grid system failure that’s been seen in parts of Australia in recent years is not uncommon. In the UK, the risk of total blackout or significant partial shutdown of the transmission network is increasing.

The rise in renewables is making failure more probable. Wind farm growth creates frequency-management issues arising from reduced system inertia, while declining network strength can cause longer, stability-risking, fault-clearance times. Then there are the challenges to match supply to demand following sudden variations in wind generation and the reduced one-hour notice of input variations from European interconnectors. Other risk factors include grid substation failure, lightning or overhead line faults and cyber attack.

For grid recovery following widespread collapse, a process known as ‘black starting’ is deployed where the UK is split into different areas. Being able to rapidly black-start the country is a public health priority and, rightly, a public expectation, but in Scotland, and probably London, it is unrealisable; it would take several days to re-establish networks. So serious has the issue become that I understand it has attracted the attention of the government’s Cobra civil contingencies committee.

Professional expectation for Scotland to black-start has now, I’ve been told, risen to five days, largely as a result of large-scale, dispatchable, on-demand generation being replaced with intermittent distributed renewables. London has experienced a similar progressive local reduction and will also take longer to recharge since much of its high-voltage grid uses cable and not overhead line transmission.

The Scottish Black Start Restoration Working Group reviewed its procedures in September 2018. These are based on local joint restoration plans that would see transmission operators powering up and stabilising local transmission islands, which would then have to be synchronised and progressively interconnected.

The group’s report warns that, following the 2016 closure of the Longannet coal-fired power station in Fife, there would be ‘severe delays’ to restoration. Peterhead gas-fired station, now Scotland’s only high-powered and high-inertia (essential to stabilise frequency) dispatchable power station, is seeking planning permission to install 31 diesel generators, capable of full power for seven days, to secure its restart. However, it has only half the capacity of Longannet and couldn’t restart all of Scotland without input from the pumped-storage capacity at Cruachan and Foyers and, crucially, from England, which arrangement is untested.

Nor would wind farms be able to black-start the grid. Main generator types in use need external power to start generating; some more recent designs are self-starting, but connecting to a dead grid via long offshore AC cable interconnections remains an unsolved problem as the turbines cannot provide enough reactive power to recharge what are, in effect, large capacitors. In any case, they wouldn’t be able to meet National Grid requirements for block loading, grid voltage or frequency control.

The first local joint grid-restoration activity is to disconnect all offshore generation. Onshore wind farms can be progressively reintroduced once the grid has been re-established, but only providing they are not frozen and there is wind. As with all nuclear stations, Scotland’s Hunterston and Torness could only be reconnected into a stable grid, this taking several days.

The new £2.4bn HVDC interlinks from Wales to the Hunterston area and from Moray Firth to Spittal have not been engineered to support black start as they do not include the latest voltage source converter (VSC) technology and cannot commutate into a dead network. Scotland is now literally at the end of the line and critical restart power would arrive only once the north of England grid had been re-established. Similarly, for London, the two HVDC interconnector links to France and the Netherlands cannot support black start.

National Grid confirmed in 2016 that the restoration strategy “must be adjusted” as “system strength and the number of black-start providers declines” and that black-start costs are “anticipated to increase by a 7-10 factor” over the next 10 years. While, like Ofgem, it favours the provision of up to seven new VSC interconnectors between Britain and the European mainland, these are not yet built and power availability from them would depend on market conditions. The UK is a net importer of electricity. And then there is Brexit…

The situation is clearly untenable. It exemplifies the need for proper governance of the UK electricity system to replace the present disparate, profit-driven weakening of the grid that ‘the market’ has caused.

Several of the engineering institutions are advocating change, including the IET, the IMechE and the Institution of Engineers in Scotland. We need to be heard.

David Watson is a chartered electrical engineer who before retirement was manager of projects at Foster Wheeler Energy, based in Glasgow.

Does Brexit pull the plug on the UK energy sector?

March 11th, 2019 no comment

The United Kingdom’s power grid is fully integrated with mainland Europe’s, so given the evidently Herculean task of severing ties with the European Union, it is unsurprising that concerns have been raised about post-Brexit energy policy.

After all, the EU rulebook on all things power is a massive tome, rivalling legislation like the Common Agricultural Policy for impact and the bloc’s trade policy for complexity. It is certainly not a simple matter of flipping a light switch on and off.

Indeed, the EU has spent the last five years updating its rules on energy efficiency, renewables and carbon markets so that they are fit for purpose. The UK was one of the main engineers of the new laws, which recently entered into force.

Yet unlike single market access woes and protecting the Good Friday Agreement, energy policy is where the UK could get off lightly, regardless of what happens at the end of March.

This is largely because Britain is quite literally an energy island, only relying on other countries to provide about 6 per cent of its average annual electricity demand. In absolute terms, power exports are also not that significant.

What little energy is imported and exported from and to the EU via the UK’s four existing undersea electricity cables would continue largely unabated after Brexit according to most experts, as the EU does not impose tariffs on electricity.

It’s the same story for natural gas, too.

Even in the event of no-deal Brexit, contingency plans mean power will continue to flow across the four interconnectors, despite the UK government confirming last year that EU energy rules would cease to apply if there is no withdrawal agreement.

However, decoupling from the EU market could lead to inefficiencies in the nitty-gritty process of power trading, having a knock-on effect on the volume of electricity that can be imported and exported. There is potential for an increase in power costs for the consumer.

In the short term then, the lights stay on, with the admitted risk of imported power becoming costlier. Yet matters become far less certain in the medium-to-long term and when investment decisions come into play.

Interconnectors are big business and come with hefty price-tags. Many projects completed so far in Europe have been built with EU rules in mind, which state that each country must be able to export a certain amount of its power.

For 2020, that target is 10 per cent and is set to increase to 15 per cent by 2030. If the UK is no longer a part of that mix, then the incentive to connect grids will no longer be as potent.

The Brexit vote has already had that effect, as France’s energy regulator put the brakes on a proposed second cable across the Channel shortly after the June 2016 referendum result, citing “uncertainties”.

Although the IFA 2 interconnector is now proceeding as planned, any delays to projects that take years to complete can be costly. The UK has nine projects with six EU countries ready to go, as well as two more with Iceland and Norway. Brexit’s true effect on all of those is simply not predictable now.

The UK government has slowly rolled out its Brexit and no-deal Brexit planning, including how to deal with the trade in nuclear material, which is currently governed by the EU’s venerable Euratom Treaty.

In mid-February, Business Secretary Greg Clark announced that the UK has brokered deals with Australia, Canada, the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that safeguard “continuity for civil nuclear trade following exit day”.

Existing arrangements with Japan will also remain in force, but more talks will have to be held.

It is unclear whether leaving the EU will affect the UK’s nuclear power operations. Industry insiders insist that Brexit uncertainty was a factor in Hitachi’s recent decision to suspend work on the Wylfa nuclear plant in North Wales, though the company itself cited economic concerns.

One definite knock-on effect of leaving the EU would be loss of access to funding, particularly under the bloc’s Connecting Europe Facility (CEF), a programme set to enjoy a war-chest of over €40bn in the next decade. EU nations have used CEF money to build everything from energy interconnectors and undersea broadband cables to new motorways and port facilities. Yet that dries up in the event of no-deal.

In September 2018, the UK government confirmed it will underwrite any projects that already had funding approved but, like so many other current recipients of EU money, Westminster support will merely be a stopgap.

CEF is not the only tap that could be turned off. The European Commission announced an ‘Innovation Fund’ in February that will offer up to €1bn to help develop low-carbon technologies. That could include perfecting hydrogen vehicles, scaling up carbon-capture-storage, tidal energy projects and so on. The fund will be fuelled by revenues from the EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS), which the UK will also cease to be a member of.

If the UK-EU withdrawal agreement does somehow get enough support, possibly after an extension to Article 50, then the UK will transition out of the ETS and will eventually set up its own mechanism, a move that climate experts have welcomed.

A UK-specific market could then be linked to ETS, much as Switzerland has done. However, if there is no deal the UK will have to fall back on a carbon tax instead.

Sourcing investment for new technologies is a problematic game that Brexit will only exacerbate. Big energy companies often turn their noses up at tech that has not proved itself at scale. Yet getting it to that point in the first place is where its backers struggle.

Scientific consensus now says that carbon-capture-storage, for example, works and does exactly what it is designed to do. Yet doubts about its industrial feasibility still need to be quashed and Brussels is, according to its climate chief Miguel Arias Canete, “putting its money where its mouth is” to make it a powerful tool in the quest to cut emissions.

This is an area where the UK has done well over the last decade. 2018 was the sixth year in a row of falling emissions, according to data released at the beginning of March 2019, even though the economy continued to grow.

Brexit deal or not, the UK will still be bound by its commitments to 2015’s Paris Agreement, though it may need to submit a separate pledge as its current obligations fall under the EU’s joint commitment to cut emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

March’s data showed the UK has cut its own emissions by 39 per cent compared to 1990 and environmental groups are now hopeful that Westminster will update its 2050 climate target of 80 per cent cuts to reflect the strong progress.

Brussels has already started to think about 2050 and in November proposed a net-zero emissions target for mid-century. EU leaders are set to use 2019 to decide whether to endorse that plan or not. If Brexit goes off the rails, the UK could end up being a part of that discussion.

On the flip-side, the EU may well feel the pinch of Brexit most when it comes to climate action, as the UK has been an influential deal-maker and mediator between its fellow member states.

Commission officials are already concerned that the departure of the Brits will embolden Europe’s central and eastern nations, many of whom would rather the EU scale back its emission-cutting ambitions.

British diplomats have been a dab hand at real-economy negotiations and have been instrumental in convincing countries like Poland and the Czech Republic that cutting out carbon and methane will be a fair team effort. No climate debate in Brussels can be held without hearing the term ‘just transition’ now.

Of course, championing a clean and green economy has been the UK’s modus operandi as it suits British interests, which include renewable energy generation, nuclear power and low-carbon tech know-how.

The current uncertainty has not put paid to that way of thinking either. During a recent discussion between EU ministers on the 2050 climate planning, UK participants countered the suggestion of other delegates that tackling climate change is “not about reinventing the wheel” and insisted that innovation must be the watchword.

However, Brexit kicks away the UK’s seat at the table and reduces its role to one of a rule-taker, in much the same way that Norway accepts EU energy legislation in return for market access. The UK could quite plausibly end up following an agenda that does not suit its interests.

That is the bottom line: the power behind British sockets will continue to flow, but how green and cheap it is over the next decade will be directly affected by what happens at the end of March.

Brexit has already caused the relocation of two EU agencies and pushed multi­national companies to take their business elsewhere. Yet in the power sector, little damage has been done at this stage.

If the plug is indeed pulled on EU membership, the UK will have a huge challenge on its hands to maintain its high standards.

Does Brexit pull the plug on the UK energy sector?

March 11th, 2019 no comment

The United Kingdom’s power grid is fully integrated with mainland Europe’s, so given the evidently Herculean task of severing ties with the European Union, it is unsurprising that concerns have been raised about post-Brexit energy policy.

After all, the EU rulebook on all things power is a massive tome, rivalling legislation like the Common Agricultural Policy for impact and the bloc’s trade policy for complexity. It is certainly not a simple matter of flipping a light switch on and off.

Indeed, the EU has spent the last five years updating its rules on energy efficiency, renewables and carbon markets so that they are fit for purpose. The UK was one of the main engineers of the new laws, which recently entered into force.

Yet unlike single market access woes and protecting the Good Friday Agreement, energy policy is where the UK could get off lightly, regardless of what happens at the end of March.

This is largely because Britain is quite literally an energy island, only relying on other countries to provide about 6 per cent of its average annual electricity demand. In absolute terms, power exports are also not that significant.

What little energy is imported and exported from and to the EU via the UK’s four existing undersea electricity cables would continue largely unabated after Brexit according to most experts, as the EU does not impose tariffs on electricity.

It’s the same story for natural gas, too.

Even in the event of no-deal Brexit, contingency plans mean power will continue to flow across the four interconnectors, despite the UK government confirming last year that EU energy rules would cease to apply if there is no withdrawal agreement.

However, decoupling from the EU market could lead to inefficiencies in the nitty-gritty process of power trading, having a knock-on effect on the volume of electricity that can be imported and exported. There is potential for an increase in power costs for the consumer.

In the short term then, the lights stay on, with the admitted risk of imported power becoming costlier. Yet matters become far less certain in the medium-to-long term and when investment decisions come into play.

Interconnectors are big business and come with hefty price-tags. Many projects completed so far in Europe have been built with EU rules in mind, which state that each country must be able to export a certain amount of its power.

For 2020, that target is 10 per cent and is set to increase to 15 per cent by 2030. If the UK is no longer a part of that mix, then the incentive to connect grids will no longer be as potent.

The Brexit vote has already had that effect, as France’s energy regulator put the brakes on a proposed second cable across the Channel shortly after the June 2016 referendum result, citing “uncertainties”.

Although the IFA 2 interconnector is now proceeding as planned, any delays to projects that take years to complete can be costly. The UK has nine projects with six EU countries ready to go, as well as two more with Iceland and Norway. Brexit’s true effect on all of those is simply not predictable now.

The UK government has slowly rolled out its Brexit and no-deal Brexit planning, including how to deal with the trade in nuclear material, which is currently governed by the EU’s venerable Euratom Treaty.

In mid-February, Business Secretary Greg Clark announced that the UK has brokered deals with Australia, Canada, the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that safeguard “continuity for civil nuclear trade following exit day”.

Existing arrangements with Japan will also remain in force, but more talks will have to be held.

It is unclear whether leaving the EU will affect the UK’s nuclear power operations. Industry insiders insist that Brexit uncertainty was a factor in Hitachi’s recent decision to suspend work on the Wylfa nuclear plant in North Wales, though the company itself cited economic concerns.

One definite knock-on effect of leaving the EU would be loss of access to funding, particularly under the bloc’s Connecting Europe Facility (CEF), a programme set to enjoy a war-chest of over €40bn in the next decade. EU nations have used CEF money to build everything from energy interconnectors and undersea broadband cables to new motorways and port facilities. Yet that dries up in the event of no-deal.

In September 2018, the UK government confirmed it will underwrite any projects that already had funding approved but, like so many other current recipients of EU money, Westminster support will merely be a stopgap.

CEF is not the only tap that could be turned off. The European Commission announced an ‘Innovation Fund’ in February that will offer up to €1bn to help develop low-carbon technologies. That could include perfecting hydrogen vehicles, scaling up carbon-capture-storage, tidal energy projects and so on. The fund will be fuelled by revenues from the EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS), which the UK will also cease to be a member of.

If the UK-EU withdrawal agreement does somehow get enough support, possibly after an extension to Article 50, then the UK will transition out of the ETS and will eventually set up its own mechanism, a move that climate experts have welcomed.

A UK-specific market could then be linked to ETS, much as Switzerland has done. However, if there is no deal the UK will have to fall back on a carbon tax instead.

Sourcing investment for new technologies is a problematic game that Brexit will only exacerbate. Big energy companies often turn their noses up at tech that has not proved itself at scale. Yet getting it to that point in the first place is where its backers struggle.

Scientific consensus now says that carbon-capture-storage, for example, works and does exactly what it is designed to do. Yet doubts about its industrial feasibility still need to be quashed and Brussels is, according to its climate chief Miguel Arias Canete, “putting its money where its mouth is” to make it a powerful tool in the quest to cut emissions.

This is an area where the UK has done well over the last decade. 2018 was the sixth year in a row of falling emissions, according to data released at the beginning of March 2019, even though the economy continued to grow.

Brexit deal or not, the UK will still be bound by its commitments to 2015’s Paris Agreement, though it may need to submit a separate pledge as its current obligations fall under the EU’s joint commitment to cut emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

March’s data showed the UK has cut its own emissions by 39 per cent compared to 1990 and environmental groups are now hopeful that Westminster will update its 2050 climate target of 80 per cent cuts to reflect the strong progress.

Brussels has already started to think about 2050 and in November proposed a net-zero emissions target for mid-century. EU leaders are set to use 2019 to decide whether to endorse that plan or not. If Brexit goes off the rails, the UK could end up being a part of that discussion.

On the flip-side, the EU may well feel the pinch of Brexit most when it comes to climate action, as the UK has been an influential deal-maker and mediator between its fellow member states.

Commission officials are already concerned that the departure of the Brits will embolden Europe’s central and eastern nations, many of whom would rather the EU scale back its emission-cutting ambitions.

British diplomats have been a dab hand at real-economy negotiations and have been instrumental in convincing countries like Poland and the Czech Republic that cutting out carbon and methane will be a fair team effort. No climate debate in Brussels can be held without hearing the term ‘just transition’ now.

Of course, championing a clean and green economy has been the UK’s modus operandi as it suits British interests, which include renewable energy generation, nuclear power and low-carbon tech know-how.

The current uncertainty has not put paid to that way of thinking either. During a recent discussion between EU ministers on the 2050 climate planning, UK participants countered the suggestion of other delegates that tackling climate change is “not about reinventing the wheel” and insisted that innovation must be the watchword.

However, Brexit kicks away the UK’s seat at the table and reduces its role to one of a rule-taker, in much the same way that Norway accepts EU energy legislation in return for market access. The UK could quite plausibly end up following an agenda that does not suit its interests.

That is the bottom line: the power behind British sockets will continue to flow, but how green and cheap it is over the next decade will be directly affected by what happens at the end of March.

Brexit has already caused the relocation of two EU agencies and pushed multi­national companies to take their business elsewhere. Yet in the power sector, little damage has been done at this stage.

If the plug is indeed pulled on EU membership, the UK will have a huge challenge on its hands to maintain its high standards.

Sponsored: Tiptoeing Through the Tulips to Protect Power Plants

March 11th, 2019 no comment

In some ways power plants are the backbones of modern society. With systems as integral to technological order as these, protection against downtime is pivotal. Whether it’s a nuclear, coal-fired, or hydropower plant, they all have one insurance and protection policy in common: generator circuit breakers (GCBs). Playing a key role in power plant protection, GCBs protect plants from high surges of current (Figure 1). By interrupting potentially harmful short-circuit fault currents caused by faulty wiring or grid issues within tens of milliseconds, GCBs prevent important plant assets from severe damages. In a world where the smallest downtime can potentially cost millions of dollars, it is no surprise that these devices are so critical. ABB Group, a multinational leader in electrification products, robotics and motion, industrial automation, and power grids, develops GCBs to safeguard power plants around the world.

The challenge of dealing with short circuit current surges is that they can arise from either the grid or the generator at any given time. Because of this, GCBs must not only be extremely reliable, but they must have exceptional availability and be able to operate flawlessly, even after a long period of dormancy. Under normal operation, the GCB is a regular, low-resistance part of the circuit that connects the generator to the transformer and the grid. The GCB transfers the generated electric energy to the high-voltage transmission system in a dependable way. But when needed, it must be able to interrupt currents many times larger than normal operating conditions and extinguish them without damaging other components. 


Figure 1. An inside view of an ABB generator circuit breaker (HEC10-210). Image credit: ABB.

Grounding the System with Tulip Switches

Employed in thousands of power plants around the world, the GCBs developed by ABB provide a safe and reliable connection, with a lifetime of at least 30 years. But Francesco Agostini, Alberto Zanetti, and Jean-Claude Mauroux, engineers at ABB, are continuously improving their designs to keep up with modern demands. When an upgraded version is developed, there are extensive testing standards that must be met in order to warrant commercial use. Some of these standards apply to the earthing switches (Figure 2), a critical safety component within the circuit breaker system. “The task of an earthing switch is to ground energized parts of a system, electrically connecting them to the earth,” Mauroux explains. “They are also used to protect personnel while working on operational equipment and must therefore be very reliable and safe, even under adverse climactic conditions.”

There is a delicate balance that must be met for an earthing switch design. A well-known design that ABB uses for their earthing switches is a tulip configuration. This design employs silver-plated fixed and sliding contact fingers that provide a disconnecting contact for current to flow through and springs to apply static forces to each finger. On one hand, it must be able to withstand the full short circuit fault current according to the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) standards when the contact is closed (Figure 3). On the other hand, the tremendously high currents cause large electromagnetic forces to arise, and the side effects of these must be managed accordingly.


Figure 2. Typical single line diagram of a circuit breaker system showing the placement of the earthing switches.

The ultimate focus of the contact system of an earthing switch is the current-carrying capacity, but to understand the complex effects of the contact force on it, Agostini, Zanetti, and Mauroux needed the assistance of multiphysics simulation to quantify the total forces acting on the contact. Using the COMSOL Multiphysics® software, they proceeded to construct an earthing switch tulip contact model to simulate the coupled electromechanical behaviour.


Figure 3. Earthing switch in closed position in a GCB. The moving pin connects the upper and lower tulip contacts. Image credit: ABB.

Fingers, Fields, and Forces

The effects of the electromagnetic forces that act on the fingers of the tulip contact are twofold. The Holms force, a force that stems from electrical contact points, causes a repulsion. The Lorentz force, a force on a current-carrying object in a magnetic field, causes an attraction. The issue lies with ensuring the attractive force is far greater. A repulsion of the fingers can lead to a lower contact force and possibly separation, significantly increasing the electrical resistance of the contact. A higher resistance leads to higher resistive losses, and those higher losses come with sharp increases in temperature, which can damage the GCB and the earthing switch by welding its contacts. Therefore, the contact force must be adequately large. The tulip contact is an intrinsic solution, which follows the Lorentz law. The welding current capacity further justifies the need for large contact forces. The tulip design plays a vital part in obtaining sufficiently high welding currents and negating the repulsive electromagnetic forces. The ability to withstand high welding currents ensures the extinguishing of the high load without melting the tulip contacts (Figure 4), which guarantees a safe and reliable operation of the entire GCB under extreme conditions. “The object of this tulip design is to provide not just a disconnecting contact, but flat springs to apply static radial pressure to the contact fingers,” Mauroux says. “The increased Lorentz force will assist the contact forces and contribute to reaching much higher welding currents.”


Figure 4. Welding zone. Left: Section of the welded tip (top) onto the pin (bottom). Right: Detail of the welding zone showing the formation and solidification of molten metals forming an alloy. Image credit: ABB.

Evaluating the total force on the contacts requires multiple types of physics to be coupled: The electric current flowing through each finger creates a magnetic field, and each magnetic field in turn creates forces on every other finger because of their respective currents. The team used multiphysics simulation to calculate the force in a variety of ways, lending robustness and credibility to their calculations that have been validated against experiments. They exploited the symmetry of the system to simplify their model and reduce the computational effort. They modelled a single finger (Figures 5 and 6) to capture the behaviour of the entire tulip at 1/8th of the computational cost. Using Maxwell’s stress tensor, Lorentz force calculations confirmed that the attractive force dominates the repulsive Holms force and that the tulip design prevents separation. The simulated total force value can then be used to calculate a theoretical welding current value, which confirmed the ability to carry higher welding currents.


Figure 5. Left: Contact geometry. Right: Deformation of a single finger of a tulip design. Image credit: ABB.

Simulation and Experimentation in Harmony

Once the simulation was complete, the actual design needed to undergo numerous testing procedures. These tests include dielectric type tests to guard against electrical breakdowns, mechanical endurance tests, and operating temperature tests. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the KEMA power test, where the theoretical current values need to be verified experimentally to confirm adherence to IEC current-carrying standards. An empirical investigation is set up to determine a measured value for the welding current, where the switch is exposed to power-plant-like conditions. To become certified, the switch must be capable of delivering peak currents in excess of 500 kA. “We passed the type tests with room to spare, demonstrating the harmony in which simulation and experimentation can exist. COMSOL is a very nice tool to combine with empirical testing,” says Agostini. “The intuitive interface helped us involve many different physics in a structured and controlled way.”


Figure 6. Log of the current density distribution of a tulip configuration. Image credit: ABB.

A Full Electro-Thermal-Mechanical Model

The team’s ultimate goal is to create a full electro-thermal-mechanical model to simulate more complex designs and gain a comprehensive understanding of all of the physics going on in their earthing switches. Furthermore, careful analysis of the physical and chemical processes behind the contact welding mechanism is something they plan to work on in the future. “Continued advancement in the material selection and modification is fundamental to improving the reliability and performance of our products,” Mauroux says. “Simulation tools will be developed and extensively adopted and we believe COMSOL is up to the challenges of the future when even more complex situations need to be modelled.”


From left to right: Markus Bujotzek, technology manager GCBs; Francesco Agostini, head of technology development GCBs and materials; Jean Claude Mauroux, principal engineer, GCBs technology development; Alberto Zanetti, research engineer, materials.

To read more about innovative products and designs that have been created using multiphysics simulation in a variety of industries visit the COMSOL User Story Gallery