Solar family

As Germany hit 22Gw of solar electricity generation over the weekend (meeting over 50% of total electricity demand), my family was contributing to the UK electricity grid in a slightly more modest manner. My parents’ house in Birmingham has 2.9kW of solar panels installed and my brother’s house in York has 1.4kW. On Saturday they produced over 25 kW hrs of energy. At the same time we were all producing more hot water than we could possibly use through solar water heaters.

I know that it was one of the best weekends of the year for sun but it showed me that if we find lots of small ways of lowering demand and using distributed generation there’s a lot that could be done. Carbon zero in 20 years began to seem achievable to me.

For that to happen we’ll need a huge retrofitting programme — first concentrating on all council owned and housing association properties. By putting in place insulation, the most efficient windows available, thermostats and timers and then solar water heating and PV we could make a massive dent in CO2 emissions. Combine that with research into new storage techniques and major investment into things that could just solve all our problems and you could have something interesting. If that’s not investing in infrastructure for growth I’m not sure what is.

By the way if you own your own roof and have a bit of cash sitting in a saving account, you’d be mad not to get PV at the moment in the UK. Even though the feed in tariff has dropped, so has the price of the panels themselves and on a £6,000 investment you’ll get 5–10% return per year. If you can find me an ISA that gets that, let me know.
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Here’s to the quiet ones

Quiet by Susan Cain is a very good book. The central theme is that we’ve designed many of the structures and systems of society around extroverts — people who are outgoing and ‘team players’ in the business jargon — at the expense of introverts. You might have seen Cain’s TED Talk — but even if you have, I’d recommend the book. It’s an example of a book that is better than the talk because it manages to add much more detail and subtlety.

There’s some debate about what constitutes an introvert but at a basic level people who get their energy from being around and interacting with other people are extroverts. People who get their energy from time spent alone are introverts. There’s a spectrum to some extent and just being quiet and shy isn’t necessarily the best sign to look for. As Cain writes:

Introverts may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.

I’ve often been frustrated by business thinking that elevates the extrovert CEO to god-like levels of respect and even worse, ignores the evidence about the risks of the decisions they take. In some industries (and startups) that can be a good thing, but very rarely I’d argue. I also think it’s very easy to abuse extroversion if you have it and I think people are beginning to recognise that. Perhaps it’s one reason why politicians are so untrusted.

The other reason I found the book interesting is that it helped me make some sense of my own behaviour. I really don’t like large group meetings and I’m much more comfortable one to one or in small groups. In some ways I’m more comfortable speaking to a large group than ‘networking’ at conferences because it allows me to prepare and I’ve had quite a lot of practice over the years.

It’s probably a bit dangerous to generalise about personalities which is always the risk with books like this. But when you combine it with more extreme books like Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test and books about the combinations of personalities behind great innovations like Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, I think there’s a lot to be learned about how to build great teams and great organisations.

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Send more chianti (or what economic growth feels like)

There’s a little piece in the FT’s Lex Column today about wine in China that reminds me of an experience we had in Beijing:

So fast is the market expanding that China is now Pernod Ricard’s second-biggest market. Sales of its mass-market Jacob’s Creek should grow at 40 per cent this year.

On our second evening in Beijing (staying at the very nice Orchid hotel) we found ourselves at a free wine tasting for an Italian wine importer. The guy doing the importing was in his late twenties and from Italy but had learned Chinese at university and always wanted to move to China. Although he liked wine, he’d never planned to go into the wine business, but now surfing the wave of demand he was cleaning up because there are so few Europeans who can speak the fluent Chinese you need to be an importer. His only problem was getting enough of the stuff into the country.

It’s hard to think of anything where there’s demand like that in Europe at the moment and just reminded me how different an economy feels when there’s so much growth.


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Little things you learn in Beijing

  • The Beijing subway is brilliant but a bit full on during rush hour. I guess you can’t really complain for 20p a ride.
  • Internet use is restricted but VPNs are usually ok and a lot of people use them — it makes me wonder how many UK twitter (or BBC iPlayer) users are actually in China.
  • The argument the Chinese Government uses for blocking some sites isn’t about censorship (they’re actually quite open about that) but that they don’t want American companies to hold lots of personal data about Chinese citizens. Google Docs is blocked for that reason and it’s the same with Facebook.
  • People don’t really buy hot coffees in the summer — it’s all about the iced coffee.
  • The Communist Party has over 50 million members. They vote on stuff fairly often.
  • There’s pretty much a Chinese internet that we don’t see. The vast majority of Chinese internet users access it through their phones rather than a web browser.
  • The electric bikes are brilliant — particularly the tricycles with an motor strapped underneath them. Why don’t we have them in the UK?
  • The tech industry in China has a special place and is given a lot of freedoms and support by the Government. A lot more than the tech industry gets from US or UK governments.
  • Dumplings for lunch — tasty, filling, 50p — what’s not to like?
  • The idea (you often hear in Silicon Valley) that Chinese coders don’t have any creativity is really not true. While it’s arguably behind at the moment the startup ecosystem in China is developing much faster than the US or Europe.
  • Chinese beer is respectable. Chinese wine less so.
  • I’ve started thinking the software patent debacle in the US is more likely to derail the tech industry there than the intellectual property regime in China is here.
  • The plug sockets (see above) are genius and should be compulsory in all hotels and event venues everywhere. They take plugs from pretty much any country you like.