The Swarm concept
On Monday, Alan Simpson MP told us the story of Hamburg, where there is a debate about building new power stations. One strongly discussed idea is that of the 'CHP Swarm', remotely controlled by the Grid management system. Thousands of CHPs could be installed in domestic and commercial premises, giving a good geographical distribution. When demand is low, the machines hibernate (because other sources like wind and solar may be providing enough), (although individual house owners can run them when they need to for heating); when demand picks up, the machines are booted up (e.g. windless winter days); when demand is high (winter evenings, and events when demand is predictable such as intervals of Televised football matches), the machines spin up to higher output. If one urban area has higher demand (eg office district in daytime and residential in evenings), the machines in that area spin up to meet the demand. Transmission losses are low because the consumer and generator are in the same district. The householder needs do nothing apart from accommodate the machine, and maintain their broadband connection - they are paid through the feed in tariff for the energy output, so it is in their interest to maintain them reliably.
We have all seen natural history videos of vast flocks of Locusts, Starlings, Midges, Herring etc appearing to have like a single intelligence, moving rythmically or purposefully.
The idea of thousands of sophisticated machines is not so strange as we already use the 'swarm technique' already for short term transportation, in routes which are short or cannot be served by public transport. Every morning, thousands of children pile into cars to be taken to school then the cars return to be parked outside the house. Thousands of cars drive into city centres and shopping malls every day. Despite the cost of making a car, most families seems to find one way (finance, second hand, third hand, lease) of having one. Cars all cost more than CHP units, but many families have two.
The 'swarm' idea applies in culture and the media. 20 years ago, there was only BBC1 and BBC2 and ITV. There were a limited number of national or local newspapers, end of story. Highly channelled and centralised. Although we now have more channels than we could have imagined, the swarm technique now applies in the Blogosphere, where thousands of people can join a Facebook or Myspace group within hours, and contribute comments, and provoke discussion, create crazes. Youtube allows individuals to make their point or post their music. Some people spend 6-10 hours a day on line and never watch live TV, they watch iPlayer.
It has been a recent fashion to have 'render-farms' so that many machines on a network share the task of computing difficult problems or rendering tasks. I have been in the University of Nottingham's 'inner computing centre' and there is no enormous computer. There are racks and racks of interlinked servers, each the size of an iMac laid flat in a rack.
I am leading to the idea that urban areas could have a large number of sunboxes conveniently posted on walls or roofs, often integrating well with buildings, which were conducting solar heat directly underground.
In dense urban areas, the ground is shaded by the trees and well insulated buildings, the tarmac loses as much as it gains and is largely covered by parked cars, and shaded by trees in summer. The visible areas of tarmac are not enough to store solar heat 'accidentally' - so something more deliberate needs to be done. Sunboxes are cheap as a technology, and can be unobtrusive (looking rather like a window), can fit between windows, as part of a facade, in the valley between roofs, or even as part of a balcony surround.
1. The overhead photo (thanks to Googlemaps) shows an area of West London, typical of city residential density. This photo makes my point about the trees and the parked cars. But there are plenty of roof spaces where sunboxes would not even be visible to ground level. The problem here would be laying in ground pipes. But I remember when Cable TV was being laid in Nottingham 20yrs ago, every street was dug up for cabling! There is a new generation of small diggers, small enough to fit through a house door (for excavating ground floor slabs), so it is possible to plant slinky Ground loops in domestic back gardens.
2. The middle photo show the square mile of London, with key buildings many of which now use CHP on a vast scale, some have boreholes for cooling and for heating, they all have plant rooms, and they all have a high value but high running costs, making it a worthwhile investment to instal energy saving systems. Sunboxes work better on wall than on roof, and tall buildings have plenty of wall surface. Sunboxes can be part of a double facade construction. Just as the Heron Tower (just north of the picture) has a whole south wall of Photovoltaic, but also has a high level of transparency, Sunboxes are just a double skin with thermal collectors which do not need to occupy the whole space - so you can see round them, and they can include PV in patches.
3. The Barbican development is one of the most successful London districts, being of mixed use (residential, cultural), and of mixed height - built in late 60s early 70s. Developments on a large scale like this can justify investment in district heating, boreholes, energy centre (for CHP), and for large scale heatpumps delivering to many residences. A new development can incorporate sunboxes so easily that the the viewer would just see them as part of the facade, if they realised what they were at all.
The swarm concept is first about numbers, but it is also about the mass action or mass intelligence effect, compared with larger, single purpose solutions (as in thousands of network connected CHPs being better than a power station). So although my sunboxes are currently controlled solely by thermostat, I shall apply some thought to the idea of broadband connection (in the same way that my PV roof is now on broadband) and what they could do. If ultra-deep boreholes are shared by several houses, you would need some way to control and monitor the sunboxes serving them, the individual ones could respond more quickly to clouds moving away from the sun compared with a central weather station miles away. As clouds moved, sunboxes would come on and switch off accordingly. Districts with newer, better insulated houses would have different amounts of draw from the borehole.
Is it so unreal that heatpumps could be in the majority of households in the long term future? Well you only have to look at the food retail industry to see how supermarkets and frozen food have made it essential to preserve food in refrigerators. There not been a private market or council house built in the last 50 yrs that included cold cellars or traditional larders. Fridges are so commonplace that there are now 'fridge mountains' of thrown-away fridges when people upgrade to better models. If very expensive refrigeration technology can be built in sufficient numbers, it becomes very cheap - and fridges are the most reliable appliances in the home. Heatpumps are simply large scale fridges, with pipes attached - they could become a lot cheaper!
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