Books written by Ray Sullivan

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Running Hot and Cold

Energy is very much in the news these days.  Despite only a 1.5% increase in the cost of energy on the world markets many of the energy providers in the UK have raised their prices to consumers by an average of 9%.  Understandably many of those consumers are not very happy.  Neither was Parliament, which is why it summoned the heads of the six big energy providers to explain their rationale for raising prices so high.

Only one of the six turned up, perhaps to try and prove they're not running a cartel over here.  Or maybe he just didn't get the email.  All have offered reasons for the unaccounted for 7.5% which includes Government imposed green taxes, although nobody has explained why those taxes hadn't been felt in the price before this hike.  Given the rate that energy prices have risen over the last few years it seems unlikely that the big six have been absorbing these taxes, especially as they seem to trot them out as an excuse every winter anyway.  The other reason provided is based on the wholesale prices they are charged by their suppliers.  Which might seem plausible until you realise that each of the big six are owned by the six suppliers that they each buy from.  They are their own suppliers.

There is a real suspicion that the big six might be skewing the prices by letting their parent companies charge whatever they want and then just passing the extra costs onto the consumer.  There's been a lot of hot air generated over this topic over the last few weeks, which appears to be a bit of a waste given that we are experiencing unseasonably warm weather.  Perhaps it would have been better left until the cold snap.

There is, predictably, a lot of advice on how consumers can reduce their energy bills in their homes from well meaning know-all's who hate to see a drop of energy wasted.  But enough about me.  The single best advice provided, by a Minister no less, was to put another woolly pullover on when the temperature drops.  Given the availability of cheap clothing these days, that's not an unreasonable idea.  In essence it's taking the problem of heating the house away and replacing it with the problem of heating the person.

There is, however, another way of looking at this problem, and it comes from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a place I had the pleasure of visiting the other week.  Actually the visitors' centre was a little disappointing but at least the tee shirts were inspired.  One stated that what happens in the black hole, stays in the black hole.  Another asserted that if it ain't broke then an engineer will take it apart and fix it.  But apart from commissioning cool tee shirt designs the bright guys and gals at MIT have been tackling the energy problem from the personal perspective.

You see, we aren't actually that good at judging the temperature.  There's obviously some well developed systems that have evolved over the millennia that keeps our core at the correct temperature most of the time, but it seems that it can be a bit flaky generally.  Which is why people can find themselves walking into hypothermia some times, heatstroke others.  One of the observations the researchers from MIT have made is that generally we tend to wear clothes based on our opinion of what the temperature should be.  I've observed this, noting that as soon as October arrives some people start wearing heavy coats and scarves, regardless of the actual temperature outside.  Me, I wear tee shirts until someone observes my arms have turned blue, then I roll the sleeves down.

The MIT researchers have developed a prototype electronic device that somehow interferes with our perception of temperature and sends signals through our nervous system that modifies how we perceive it.  It's early days yet and the prototype looks like an eighties calculator strapped to a wrist, but they think that they can develop a workable device that will allow everybody to tolerate lower temperatures without harming their bodies.  That will allow us all to turn our thermostats down a notch or two.

After that, throw in a woolly pullover and we can defer putting the heating on until mid January.  Then listen to the howls of anguish from the big six as we stubbornly choose not to use their energy.  And if that isn't enough, layer up even further with tee shirts as well, but make sure they're not too cool.


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