Saturday, January 1, 2011


It's the first day of 2011.  Today, we start a new year -- and the second decade of the 21st century.  And we're starting from a new home.

This blog is now at where all new items will be posted.  This space will remain (indefinitely) as an archive of sorts.

Thanks for your support over the past two years and we hope you'll continue to check us out at our new home.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 6, 2010


1.  What century are we in, again? 

Here’s an amazing fact: over the past 10 years, the retail price of electricity across the OECS has roughly doubled.  And over the same period, most of the energy-sector leaders of the affected countries have done exactly nothing about the fundamental problem.  

This makes the chances quite good that, unless things change drastically and soon, pretty much the same thing will happen again – with one important difference.

What is the fundamental problem?  The problem is that we in the OECS depend on imported fossil fuels for almost all of our energy supply – and there are two things we can say for sure about fossil fuels.  Over the long run, (a) their prices will go up and (b) at current rates of extraction, they’re eventually going to run out.  So guess what will happen to economies that don’t break their dependence on the stuff before those two trends collide?  Ok, in the long run, we’ll all be dead (as British economist John Maynard Keynes is said to have observed), but this isn’t about us.  It’s about the legacy of failure we will leave to future generations if we continue along the present path of business as usual.

Business as usual has been encouraged by the failure of our leaders to see beyond the useful Petrocaribe scheme initiated by Venezuela.  Petrocaribe should have been taken as a short-term expedient to give cash-strapped governments some breathing space to start reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, but it appears to have given some of us the impression that oil can still be had cheaply – with the net effect of increasing our dependence on oil (not to mention our debt) since the scheme was launched.

Think of a serious medical case, accompanied by intense pain.  The attending doctor will prescribe the appropriate painkillers to provide short-term relief, but will also proceed to treat the underlying illness, to ensure a good longer-term outcome.  

It’s that second part that’s not happening in our energy sector and, if this continues, business as usual is pretty quickly going to turn into economic disaster when – and this is the important difference – a future oil price crisis is accompanied by an actual supply shortage of the stuff, worldwide.  At that point, small individual islands in the OECS are not likely to be at the top of the global supply chain.  In short, we won’t be able to get enough oil, even if we can get a low-interest loan to pay for it.

There are a few bright spots: Nevis and Dominica have shown the necessary vision and leadership to actually treat the fundamental problem and are forging ahead with geothermal and wind power projects, some of which are already generating green energy for their citizens.  The other governments are at various stages of either making actual plans to move forward, talking about moving, or simply carrying on with business as usual.

So, let’s summarize.  The OECS energy sector is ending the first decade of the new century, still largely stuck in the old one.  If this continues, our economic development plans and programmes are ultimately useless: it won’t matter how many hotel rooms, airports, highways and mobile phones per thousand people we can boast, because without a secure, reliable and affordable supply of energy, none of these things will matter.  Ten years into the new century, the OECS is staring disaster in the face if our energy sector leaders don’t start following the example of the real leaders – the ones who are looking at the next 50 years, and taking their people towards a truly sustainable energy and economic future.

2. The Electric Vehicles are coming!

On Nov 17th the Chevy Volt (a gasoline-electric hybrid) was named “Car of The Year” by not one, but two of the most prestigious auto magazines in the US.  Less than 2 weeks later, the European car folks named the all-electric Nissan Leaf as Europe’s 2010 “Car of the Year”.  

The electric car is going mainstream.  Pretty soon, it will be just as easy to buy a hybrid or an all-electric as it is to buy a gas or diesel vehicle now.  What will happen in the Caribbean?

More than half of all fuel imported to the OECS goes into the transport sector.  Three-quarters of that energy is actually wasted, due to the inherent inefficiencies of burning liquid fuels in gasoline and diesel engines.  So, just imagine the huge economic and environmental benefit if we could replace that gasoline and diesel with electricity generated from steam that comes from a hole in the ground?

Pretty soon, that’s going to be happening on Nevis.  Their geothermal power plant, scheduled to be producing power by 2012, will make Nevis the first viable electric vehicle location in the Caribbean.  So ten years from now, when the rest of the Caribbean is yet again struggling with crippling fuel prices (this time quite probably accompanied by actual fuel shortages), some Nevisians will be happily driving around, getting the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon of fuel, without importing a single gallon of fuel to do so.

3.  A home-grown Social Energy Innovation enters the Global Stage

In July 2010, GE, one of the world’s largest companies, launched their Ecomagination Challenge, a global competition to find and fund the world’s best ideas to power the 21st century smart grid, backed by a US$200 million venture capital fund.

The contest attracted over 3,800 ideas, submitted from more than 150 countries.  One of the submissions was Welectricity, an innovative social network for energy efficiency conceived in and launched from St Vincent & the Grenadines.  And, as the post below reports, Welectricity received an Ecomagination award for consumer innovation, winning the “Best Idea for the Millennial” prize.  Read more here, and have a productive and green 2011!

Saturday, November 20, 2010


Guest post by Welectricity

At a live Ecomagination awards ceremony in New York City on Tuesday, GE announced twelve companies in which they will invest $55 million, five "Innovation Award" winners and five "Consumer Innovation Award" winners.

The announcement was the most recent milestone in GE's $200 million Ecomagination Challenge, their committment to find, fund and develop the best, most innovative ideas and businesses that will power the smart grid of the 21st century.

And Welectricity was one of the five consumer innovation award winners, receiving an award for "Best idea of The Millennial".

As such, we receive a $10,000 grant to continue developing our product and the recognition of having been chosen by GE as an Ecomagination winner.  We're thrilled to get this recognition, and very excited about the future prospects for our free, low-carbon, social energy efficiency service.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 21, 2010


What will the consumer-facing smart grid look like? 

A post by Katie Fehrenbacher on GigaOm this week notes that while utilities are installing the infrastructure for smarter power grids, “it will be the applications that run on top of these networks that will drive a lot of the revenues for companies, and ultimately provide the important functionality for consumers and utilities.”

I agree with her assessment.  I’d like to go a little further, and suggest that the future configuration of the consumer-facing smart grid will be a combination of three things: a smart meter, a web app and a smart phone.

Despite some doubts expressed by some (me included) about the wholesale push into smart metering, it’s a pretty safe bet that those devices are here to stay.   Owned by, and providing real benefits to the utility, smart meters are likely to be a money-maker for utilities in the long run.

What about the smart sensors and controllers – the networked collection of in-home devices that will gather real-time energy consumption information from appliances and send the data to a central console for viewing and control action by the householder and/or the utility?  Quite a few companies have emerged in this segment of the so-called home energy management space – and there’s fierce competition developing, along with a rising tide of mergers and acquisitions.

I think that stuff is pretty neat (I’m an engineer, after all) but I also think most of it will go away in a few years (a SmartGridNews staff report this week considers the home energy management sector as “waaaayyy overcrowded”).  Once standards (especially for data security protocols) get set and adopted and appliances get smart, the same sensing and control capabilities will increasingly be built into the appliances themselves, which will directly communicate with the smart meter.  GE is apparently readying its rollout of a range of smart appliances that may set the pace for this trend.

In any case, the success of companies like Opower points to a subversive fact: a lot of these home energy networking devices….(gasp) aren’t even necessary anyway!  Why?  Because energy consumption is fundamentally about human behavior.  A British economist named W Stanley Jevons pointed out in 1866 why throwing more efficient technology at the problem of increasing consumption doesn’t necessarily solve it.  A household equipped with the basic energy efficient appliances (CFLs, front-load washers, etc) and using behavioral nudges, can save just as much energy and carbon over time, as the set-it-and-forget-it networked dream house of the future.  Bear in mind that every smart meter or in-home device has an up-front, built-in energy and carbon footprint based on its materials, manufacture, packaging and shipping (the upcoming Story of Electronics, part of the seminal Story of Stuff Project, may have some details on this).

The web app (provided to the utility by a third party) will interface with the smart meter and will collect, sort and present the consumption data to the consumer on a dashboard, so that the consumer has the necessary information and other motivational nudges to be more energy efficient.  This area is also developing and some of the names in this space are huge, familiar and developing super-sophisticated offerings crammed with databases and complex algorithms (Google, Microsoft); others, not so much (Welectricity).

And finally, the consumer will view that dashboard on the web – which, increasingly, means on a smart phone.  So, in-home display devices, now also coming much into vogue, will eventually go away as well, since none of these will be able to match the sheer convenience and multi-functionality of tomorrow’s smart phones.

Some wag once said “I never make predictions: especially about the future”.  That might be a good policy, but it’s no fun.  So, what’s your take on this?  I’d love to get your feedback, at

Thursday, September 30, 2010


Guest post from Welectricity

The GE Ecomagination contest comes to an end today and I'd like to make a few comments about it.  It's been an incredible ride and I sincerely commend GE for their own innovation - not in launching the contest, but in making it a global contest.  That was a master stroke.

I would also like to applaud the work of the many people who have submitted their ideas.  The variety and depth of the ideas and innovations presented demonstrate that there's no shortage of imagination, the raw material of progress.  I've voted already for my favorites and I'm really sorry I didn't have enough time to go through many of the others, as I'm sure I would have cast many more votes.

I  also want to say something about a topic that has been much mentioned within the past few weeks - the voting patterns that have been observed among the top 10 contenders.

From the beginning, my strategy (which was first suggested to me by my wife) to get votes for Welectricity was to share the idea with the people of my country, St Vincent & The Grenadines, and the wider Caribbean, and to mobilise national pride in one of our own.  St Vincent & The Grenadines (SVG) has a population of only 100,000 and our people are generally very proud to know that a son of the soil is engaged in prestigious matters on a global stage. 

Our outreach has been to businesses, colleges and high schools as well as to the general public.  Our method has been to try to make it easy for people who want to vote, to be able to do so.  So, on Saturday August 21st, we set up a voting booth on a busy street in the main city, Kingstown (photos here ).  It was just two tables, some chairs, several notebook computers manned by friends, and a billboard.  We explained Welectricity to passersby and we got a great response.  Some people had already heard about it from the radio spots I had been doing. 

We did that every Saturday following, and we're doing it again today.  I also did the same at the SVG Community College, the Teachers College and at a few other business and institutional locations.  So, to the observers who mention IP logging as a means of determining the validity of votes, I just want to point out the reason why some of our votes have been generated on the same computers during the course of a single day.  Yesterday for example, at the Teachers College, I had four notebooks set up and got over 100 votes between 10 am and 7 pm from students who were very enthusiastic about the idea and pleased to have the opportunity to support a local innovation on the global stage.

Apart from that, I have used the normal channels that others would have used: Facebook, Twitter, the mainstream media, personal contacts. 

The response has been fantastic and I want to thank all of the people who have supported and voted for Welectricity.  I believe Welectricity can and will make a difference in its own way, and I am delighted to have had the opportunity to participate in this contest.

Herbert A (Haz) Samuel
Welectricity.  Energy Efficiency, meet Social Networking (TM)


Thursday, July 1, 2010


I read Joe Romm’s post last night, which speculates on the outcome of the public having “perfect climate information”.  Romm, who writes the widely applauded blog Climate Progress, was responding to a post by Andrew Revkin of the New York Times’ Dot Earth, another widely read green blog.

The discussion is about climate science and its trajectory.  Romm’s thesis in a nutshell says that if we had “perfect” climate information and if there didn’t exist the campaign of disinformation against climate science, we’d be looking at a far more encouraging scenario today.  In his opening remarks, he says that
“If the entire public had perfect information on all matters related to climate — the science and the solutions — we would certainly be on a path to below 450 ppm.”
To take the second part of the argument first: I believe that Joe is correct in identifying the destruction wrought by the disinformation campaign against climate science, and its enabling media coverage, whose oxymoronic low point was for me marked by Sarah Palin’s op-ed (the logical contradiction of such a concept boggles the mind) on cap-and-trade in the Washington Post. 

However, I don’t think the matter is really as simple as Romm suggests. 

The fundamental debate I see here is between the point of view of classical economics which sees the public as a homogeneous group of rational economic actors motivated by a combination of information, facts and their logically projected outcomes, and behavioral economics – which sees the public as an entirely different kettle of fish.

The problem (and the logical dilemma in Romm’s argument) I think is exemplified by the part of his post that, referring to the eventual death of the debate about global cooling in the 1970s at the hands of robust scientific information, says (emphasis mine):
“Obviously, if everybody had even that amount of information in 1979, we would have charted a very different course.  We would have immediately started investing heavily in low-carbon RD&D — a strategy many embrace today based on imperfect information.

Ironically, President Carter did start such heavy alternative energy investment (though not aimed at carbon), but Reagan tragically slashed the budget 70% to 90%, from which it never recovered.”
The first part of the quote reveals a logical optimism straight out of the handbook of classical economics.  The second part is also instructive.  It’s fair to presume that Carter took the action he did in part because he was well informed – he had access to good (if not perfect) information.  So the question is: why did Reagan take the action he did?  Obviously (since his action was subsequent to Carter’s), he had access to the same information that Carter had used to make his decision.  But, Reagan essentially took the opposite action.

This, to me, is the crux of the matter.

Access to information is a condition that’s necessary, but not sufficient, to produce the outcome that classical economics would predict.  People given good information about present actions and their influence on future outcomes do not necessarily do the right thing.  Sometimes they do.  Sometimes, they don’t.

Take the problem of obesity, for example.  The causes of non-pathological weight gain are well known; so is information on the necessary offsetting actions.  With the advent of the internet, there has been, for the past decade, widespread public access to near-perfect information on how to avoid this particular problem.  But, according to the World Health Organization, obesity is a growing problem, now of epidemic proportions globally. 

On the other side of the coin, the other important point here is that: I have never heard of a program of disinformation against the evils of obesity (clearly there’s a program of persuasion, by way of advertising and so on, to convince hapless burger-eaters to add layers of cheese and bacon to their already bulging double-decker burgers, but that’s not the same thing).  So, by Romm’s argument, the existence of good information on the one hand and the absence of disinformation on the other should naturally tip the scales towards a slim, healthy population.  This of course is the opposite of what has actually happened. 

A question is raised here.  Is it that climate information is somehow different to information about other important stuff – so that perfect information in this realm would produce the desired outcome?  I don’t know of any evidence to suggest this.

A complicating factor I think is the possibility that there’s a sort of cognitive imbalance where information is concerned.  The effects of the two extremes are not equivalent; and the negative effect of disinformation tends to be greater than the positive effect of perfect information (isn’t that one reason why many political scare tactics are effective?). 

Is this so?  According to TIME’s November 26, 2006 cover story on risk:
“Shadowed by peril as we are, you would think we'd get pretty good at distinguishing the risks likeliest to do us in from the ones that are statistical long shots. But you would be wrong. We agonize over avian flu, which to date has killed precisely no one in the U.S., but have to be cajoled into getting vaccinated for the common flu, which contributes to the deaths of 36,000 Americans each year. We wring our hands over the mad cow pathogen that might be (but almost certainly isn't) in our hamburger and worry far less about the cholesterol that contributes to the heart disease that kills 700,000 of us annually.

We pride ourselves on being the only species that understands the concept of risk, yet we have a confounding habit of worrying about mere possibilities while ignoring probabilities, building barricades against perceived dangers while leaving ourselves exposed to real ones.”
I believe this represents a facet of the human condition, which isn’t perfect and is unlikely, anytime soon, to be changed by perfect information alone.

A commenter on Joe’s post sums it up thus:
“Information? Learn from the advertising industry. The general rule of thumb is that people must see or hear your message at least 23 times before they even recognise a brand name or a key word.  And then what do you do if someone else is delivering an opposing message during this time? And if a couple of hundred someonelses are delivering undermining or opposing or swamping messages? A couple of thousands?  The only way is to keep doing it and get better at it.”
So, what’s needed?  Better information: definitely.  Stronger fights against disinformation: absolutely.  A mistake I think President Obama made in the so-called health care ‘debate’ was that he did not immediately and repeatedly call out the idiotic 'death panels' lie for what it was.  But our information also needs to be better presented, vividly and repeatedly.  At least twenty three times?

Saturday, June 5, 2010


Guest post by Welectricity

Getting people to change their behavior is hard, but it can be done.

The first thing required is recognition that there’s a problem.

In this case, the problem is our addiction to the consumption of more and more stuff as an end in itself, which directly fuels our ongoing dependence on fossil fuels, which in turn is slowly destroying our planet.

Perhaps there’s a growing recognition that this is a problem. But recognition, though necessary, is not sufficient. Another thing needed is leadership. Somebody has to set the example for others to follow. In that case, why not use high-profile people who we're already looking at?

Our politicians are required (at least, in mature democracies) to publicly disclose their personal finances. So, why don’t we get them to disclose their energy footprint at home as well? This would give them an incentive to reduce their consumption (so as to look good in the eyes of the public) and would provide a powerful example for us all to follow.

A radical suggestion?

Maybe. But today, which is World Environment Day and which also happens to be day 47 of the man-made, ongoing BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, we should recognize that we need radical ideas and actions now, more than ever.


On April 20th 2010 an explosion shook the Deepwater Horizon, a semi-submersible offshore oil rig working 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico.  The rig caught fire, eleven workers died in the mishap and the rig, owned and operated by Transocean Ltd on behalf of British oil giant BP, sank two days later – on Earth Day.

NASA image of the Gulf on May 24, 2010. From
Since then, crude oil - the stuff that powers the world - has been gushing out of a broken well 5,000 feet below sea level and today, 47 days later (and World Environment Day), the disaster is officially the largest oil spill in US history.

It turns out that BP was operating the well without a remote control shut-off switch used by some oil companies as a last resort protection against underwater spills.  Use of the device, called an acoustic trigger, is mandatory in other major oil-producing countries such as Brazil and Norway.

Arguably, the device could have prevented the gusher that, by some estimates, may already have pumped up to 4.5 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.  Marshes, wetlands and beaches in Louisiana have already been fouled by the oil, Florida’s coast is threatened and Cuba, 300 miles to the southeast of the spill, watches apprehensively.  Giant plumes of oil are reported to be floating ominously below the surface of the gulf, slowly dispersing their contamination.  The environmental and economic damage to the region is expected to be catastrophic.

So, why was BP not using the remote shutoff device?  Apparently because its use was not mandated by US regulators.  And, of course, stuff like that costs money.  BP, a profit-motivated private company, wants to cut costs, and their operation didn’t include the $500,000 one-off cost of an acoustic trigger.  Never mind that in 2006 BP’s profits piled up at a rate of over 60 million dollars a day.

The first time something like this, on a far smaller scale, happened in the US (off the California coast in 1969), it helped give birth to the US Environmental Protection Agency.  Will the 2010 BP oil spill be the wake-up call for energy in the 21st century?

After the leaking well is plugged (which may take several more weeks), a fundamental reckoning is needed.  Apart from the obvious regulatory issues raised by BP’s reported culture of risk-taking and the fact that they have been repeatedly allowed to get away with such an approach, this disaster needs to bring into focus the real, but uncounted costs of our addiction to oil.

The externalities and subsidies that are not priced into oil must now be counted.  These costs must be assigned, via a carbon price (which will also cover other dirty fuels such as coal), to the cost of consuming a barrel of oil.  This will facilitate our transition to alternative energy sources – a transition that must, and will, inevitably happen, but which needs to happen sooner rather than later, because the tipping point has been passed.

Our thirst for oil is sending us into further, deeper, more uncharted and riskier reaches, with dire consequences for our planet.  Elizabeth Kolbert, writing in The New Yorker notes that 

While the point of “peak oil” may or may not have been reached, what Michael Klare, a professor at Hampshire College, has dubbed the Age of Tough Oil has clearly begun. This year, the United States’ largest single source of imported oil is expected to be the Canadian tar sands. Oil from the tar sands comes in what is essentially a solid form: it has to be either strip-mined, a process that leaves behind a devastated landscape, or melted out of the earth using vast quantities of natural gas.”
Indeed, BP’s well was being drilled at what are now admitted to be “unprecedented” depths, where mishaps would clearly be more difficult to prevent in the first place and deal with after the fact, as is now being horrifyingly demonstrated.
And New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin put the matter into its perverse context yesterday,  when he noted that the amount of oil estimated by BP to be contained in the deposit now leaking into the Gulf was only enough for “five days and change worth” of US demand for oil.