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Letters to the editor: volume 17, issue 3

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In the April 2022 issue of E&T, readers discuss what different disciplines mean by ‘productivity’, the perennial issue of engineers’ status, and the future role for nuclear in the UK.

The Different Meanings of Productivity

The reference to ‘productivity’ in the article ‘Zombie Nation’ (E&T, February 2022) illustrates the danger of assuming that one discipline’s understanding of a term is the same as another’s.

For engineers, ‘productivity’ translates into the number of objects output per person, and an increase means making more in your shift. When politicians refer to ‘productivity’ they mean economic productivity, or contribution to GDP (gross domestic product), an increase in which means people spending more on goods and services.

While there is some alignment, the optima do not coincide. Ultimately the economy depends on people spending their income, and the credit that their employment enables. Industry’s role is to create goods and services that people require, but also to provide people with wages. The economy is dependent on us all ‘consuming’, so saving wages in a bank or a pension fund is not economically productive.

When the government wants to increase the UK’s economic productivity it depends on every one of us spending more, and even to borrow to facilitate it. This can be achieved by increasing everybody’s wages, and a highly skilled workforce is in a better position to drive this.

To a certain extent, increased automation supports this, but it can be at the cost of increasing unemployment, which is a net loss to the economy. De-skilling jobs can also increase industrial productivity, but it seldom leads to increased wages or employment.

London is the UK’s most economically productive region. The cost of living and the opportunities to spend are high; all family members have to work, which means nobody has time to do anything for themselves, which also means that the service economy thrives.

Pursuing the world’s economic-productivity leader, the USA, is to further embrace consumerism, living for the moment and satisfaction of personal greed. But what a life...

As one American marketeer once told me: “The problem with you Brits is you have the concept of enough! You plan for retirement, not for a bigger bank balance.” I think he was onto something there.

Maybe we are fortunate in the UK to remember that life is what happens after work. And if the consequence of that is that we have lower economic productivity, then so be it.

Prof Ian Phillips CEng FIET


Smart Meter Requirements that Cause Problems

I read Steve Tuck’s letter in the March 2022 issue of E&T, describing his friend’s experience when premature failure of the battery in his smart gas meter cut off his supply, with interest, having spent 35 years in the energy metering industry in product development and been heavily involved with the smart meter programme.

The government specified that smart gas meters shall be fitted with a battery (this requirement was later removed). This stifled innovation and precluded any development with energy-harvesting techniques. Most domestic mechanical gas meters use bellows, a form of energy harvesting that is perfectly reliable, no batteries required and lasts for over 25 years. The battery is supposed to last ten years but even if it did, 20 million will then need to be disposed of.

Energy-saving techniques were proposed that would limit transmissions from the gas meter by only sending data when it changed. This was not allowed, and under the government specifications the meter must send readings every half-hour over the radio even when they haven’t changed.

The meter reports alarms and alerts, many of which are irrelevant but require energy to send. Energy suppliers are not interested in many of the alerts and can’t cope with the volume of them. This was pointed out at the time but the requirement remained. The system has had problems with numerous false alarms raised by gas meters that could have led to premature battery failure.

The gas meter is designed to send an alarm when the battery is low to prompt a visit by the energy supplier to change it before the valve is shut. This must have been missed by Mr Tuck’s friend’s supplier, probably lost among all the false alarms. The resulting unscheduled visit will have cost roughly £100; it’s easier to change the meter than to change the battery on-site but there will also be the additional cost of refurbishing the meter later.

The reason for the valve is that BEIS (DECC at the time) and Ofgem wanted all meters to provide prepayment functionality. This was to end the discrimination faced by the 20 per cent of customers who are on prepay and who pay more because their meters are more expensive. The solution was to make all smart meters more expensive by adding the valve (and a switch in the electricity meter) at an additional cost of £180m. There’s an 80 per cent chance that Mr Tuck’s friend was not a prepay customer, nor ever likely to be, and didn’t need the valve that caused the problem in the first place.

The addition of the valve (and switch in the electricity meter) introduced a failure mode not present in ‘dumb’ meters. It also introduced a significant critical national infrastructure cyber-security risk and that was addressed through the use of public key cryptography. This is power-hungry and calculations highlighted the issue of premature battery failure in the gas meter, an issue that was raised with DECC. Previously only the 20 per cent of customers on prepay had the potential risk of losing energy supply; with smart meters it is 100 per cent.

The issue of vulnerable people being at risk of losing their energy supply is a significant one that was raised but ignored by DECC and Ofgem. Proposals for an override mechanism were made to address this very issue but not allowed as energy suppliers may lose out if the customer gets ‘free’ energy. There was more concern about tampering than there was for people who may suffer due to the loss of their supply through malfunction of a smart meter over which they have no control.

DECC specified most reliability requirements in percentage terms. Even with 99.9 per cent reliability, if 0.1 per cent of 20 million households have a battery problem, it’s a significant one.

Mr Tuck’s letter illustrates just some of the issues with the smart metering implementation programme, largely caused by the failure of the government to listen to industry experts. The design was constrained by government specifications, the metering industry had no choice but to comply and the consumer is suffering the consequences as a result.

John Cowburn CEng FIET

By email

April 2022 Letters Section Cartoon For Website

Image credit: IET

Status Needs Public Reocognition

Oh dear, here we go again. The letter from Malcolm Joynson (E&T March 2022) concerning the use of the ‘engineer’ title is just the latest of many that have appeared in engineering publications since I joined the profession in the mid-1960s.

‘Engineer’ is simply a word in the English language. The Engineering Council is quite right to say that it is impractical to have the word protected – and it is not necessary. The titles chartered engineer, incorporated engineer and engineering technician are all protected and if we, as professional engineers, do not use these in our everyday conversations and correspondence, we have only ourselves to blame for the lack of recognition.

More significant is that we have 39 disparate institutions registered with the Engineering Council, all supporting engineers to a greater or lesser extent. Until we have a single ‘Institution of Professional Engineers’ we will never be recognised by government, the media, the public and, importantly, business.

As engineering today is so intermixed and engineers need a wide range of experiences, it is more relevant than ever to have a single overriding professional body. By all means keep the specialist sectors, in the same way as do the BMA and the Law Society – both well recognised bodies for their professions.

I am aware that the ‘big three’ institutions have had discussions for some time on areas of common interest, but I guess asking them to forego their independence is a bit like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. Maybe one day – I live in hope.

John Butler CEng FIET

By email

Net Zero Without Nuclear

An article in the March 2022 issue of E&T looks at whether net-zero targets need nuclear energy.

Climate change mitigation requires a momentous and rapid shift away from fossil fuel sources over the next decade. Energy costs from wind and solar power fell precipitously over the last decade and are now less than half the cost of new nuclear power. Costs of batteries and of other storage and grid-management options, including hydrogen production, are also declining rapidly. Nuclear power costs, on the other hand, have risen by 26 per cent over the same period. Recent Lazard data confirm that the cost advantages of renewables over new nuclear now typically dwarf the costs of managing intermittency.

With very few companies left in nuclear energy worldwide, the UK government is mounting a desperate attempt to continue the nuclear option.

One financially extravagant arrangement will require payments up-front under a ‘regulated asset base’. In a second, support is provided for as-yet undeveloped civil small modular reactors. Because of their low rating these are to be installed in large numbers, preferably close to consumers to exploit the cost advantage of distributed waste heat. No mention of the necessity of abundant local cooling water supplies, of obtaining multiple planning permissions, of protecting with armed guards and of the logistics of transporting spent nuclear fuel.

‘Plutonium problems will not go away’ in the same issue does not shy from describing the eye-watering number of unresolved issues in the nuclear-waste-management technology. All this risk-taking, inherent in the immensely complex nuclear technology, when the UK has the EU’s most abundant offshore wind resource that is exploitable now with existing simple, reliable technology.

This relentless obsession with nuclear power makes no economic or technological sense until we remind ourselves that Britain is a nuclear weapons state. President Macron, a politician known for his blunt statements, said in 2020: “...without civilian nuclear, no military nuclear, without military nuclear, no civilian nuclear.” In other words, if the UK does not build new civil nuclear power stations, the entire burden of developing skills and capability to maintain its nuclear deterrent would fall on the defence budget.

Professor Leon Freris FIET


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