Sam Stephens

UK & Europe

Sam is a Chartered Civil Engineer and has worked in the UK nuclear industry for the last decade, contributing and managing the design of new nuclear facilities on major programmes of work. Sam has a passion for ideas and innovation and is interested in the big issues facing our energy system and wider infrastructure in this increasingly connected world.

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When thinking about this question, many will answer by saying that technologies like energy storage, solar PV and electric cars will have the biggest impact in reducing climate change risks over the next decade. While all these technologies have grown exponentially over the last decade and will revolutionise our energy system over the next ten years, it is difficult to focus on one solution that will deliver the change required on its own. Because focusing on the solutions ignores the real problem; to me there is not a question of what we should be delivering, but how we should be delivering it. I genuinely believe all the tools are at our disposal now to tackle climate change head on, and since Paris 2015 there is even the political will to let it happen. The challenge now is joining up the problems with the engineering solutions and the finance to pay for them, on a scale large enough to make the impact we need. In this respect the most important technological development that will have the greatest impact on reducing climate change risks is the emergence of the Decentralised Autonomous Organisation or DAO.

The concept of a DAO is still in its early stages, but is moving forward quickly. Its routes are heavily linked to the development of the Bitcoin cryptocurrency, but also draws upon trends such as crowd-sourcing, crowd-funding and the gig economy. For example, while not recognised as a DAO, JumpStartFund provided the incentives and platform for around 100 experts to give their time to develop the HyperLoop concept, which is now being looked at by governments around the world. Similarly, through its mining concept and the underlying blockchain, Bitcoin has rapidly scaled to provide a global currency with no central bank backing.

It is a challenging concept to explain but here’s how a DAO might work. Through open-source data made available by all stakeholders, project information can be made available to a wide network of peers. This information could relate to the performance of a power network or geographic and demographic information for a community for example. Through a voting and incentivisation system, these peers are encouraged to identify potential solutions, such as network upgrades or a microgrid solution for a community. The best proposals are voted on by the network, identifying the projects that are most likely to be successful, which can then be taken forward for investment. By leveraging smart contracts, investment can be delivered by contractors who develop the detailed design and construction solutions and deliver the works. At this stage an operator could be engaged through the DAO, or the project could be operated and financed by more conventional means. 

The first key strength of this approach will be in the scalability of this model, which has the potential to engage vast networks of peers and identify solutions on a much greater scale, driven by open-source data and a system level view. By providing a platform for participation, the principles of crowd sourcing and the gig economy can be leveraged. Rather than identifying solutions across countries or regions, project portfolios could be developed across countries or continents. Furthermore, by transitioning to a DAO delivery method, the adoption of new technologies for solving problems, such as Artificial Intelligence algorithms, becomes more conceivable at a larger scale.

The next key strength is that this approach will overcome one of the key challenges we face at the moment; developing engineering concepts that offer investors bankable projects where the risk is clear and understood. In a low interest rate but rapidly changing and uncertain world, there is no shortage of capital, but there is a distinct shortage of risk capital.

Finally, it has to be recognised that renewable technologies are often criticised for being too expensive and still subsidised in many regions. This is changing quickly and we are now at or close to a tipping point where in many regions, renewables are at parity or even cheaper than conventional generation. While their intermittency remains a challenge, smart solutions with demand side management, improved supply and demand forecasting, interconnection and storage can be orchestrated to help manage this. But in the project delivery value chain, I still see significant inefficiencies that cumulatively increase the expense to the end consumer. I believe through application of DAOs, many of these inefficiencies will be removed, and thus make delivery of scalable and rapidly deployable renewable technologies even more competitive with conventional solutions.

With some imagination and application, I believe DAOs have the potential to change the game over the next decade, helping to mobilise all the will, finance and ingenuity at our disposal in a far more efficient way, to quickly transition to a more sustainable future.

If you agree with me, please vote for my entry to the MASDAR blog contest and share this piece with your network. Thanks for reading!

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The ‘sharing economy’ is now synonymous with brands such as Uber and Airbnb, but in many ways the concept is not new; we as a civilisation have been sharing resources for millennia.

In more recent times, the industrial revolution of the 19th Century developed shared transport systems, the rail networks, which the manufacturing revolution of the 20th Century scaled and developed into personal transport systems, the car. The internet revolution of the 21st Century will develop this further, using technology to optimise the use of resources.

As part of this, technology will provide the platform for individuals to connect and share in ways that were not previously possible. It is in this respect that crowdfunding is a natural subset of the sharing economy. Growing out of ‘peer to peer’ lending, through pioneers such as Zopa over ten years ago, crowdfunding is becoming more commonplace. Whether it is investment in startup companies, innovative products, presidential candidates, solar farms or more recently a bridge in Amsterdam, the process allows a large number of people to individually contribute a small amount, to a project they hold a shared belief in. In some ways this is not a new idea; we’ve been paying taxes for centuries to governments that we entrust to invest in our infrastructure and public services for the common good. The really exciting thing about crowdfunding is the potential to circumvent the cumbersome decision making process of how much to tax each person and how to spend it to ensure an even distribution of wealth. The key aspect of it is that it monetises peoples’ beliefs; which are difficult to ignore if the public are willing to collectively fund a project.

As the process becomes more widespread, the power of its scalability will become evident. No longer will major infrastructure projects be solely funded by wealthy individuals and philanthropists of the 19th Century, or state funded behemoths of the 20th Century. The 21st Century will be about projects for people, funded by the people.

While crowdfunding a transport system or solar farm generates a return for investors, investing in public infrastructure is more challenging – do you subject every user to a toll when they use the footbridge in Amsterdam? Or do you expect every person to philanthropically contribute to every infrastructure project? The practicality and sustainability of either situation is a challenge. If we are to see greater application of crowdfunding to infrastructure investment, there are a couple of key aspects that need to be considered; the process for identification of suitable projects and the method to generate at least some form of investor return.

To identify projects, new methods will evolve. Again, technology will be an enabler to better understand how people live and work, what services they require and how they move around our cities and countries. For example, Atkins’ recent innovative partnership with EE in the UK provides access to anonymous mobile phone user data to develop a deeper understanding to predict demand for improved transport links. ‘Outsourcing to the crowd’ or ‘crowdsourcing’ provides another method for pooling ideas, identifying what really matters to people and generating alternative options. This is a key aspect for crowdfunding investment, people need to care about the schemes. In Atkins we have experimented with crowdsourcing internally in several ways, from a rudimentary cardboard ‘ideas wall’ in Bristol to a web-based platform to gather ideas to improve our business. We have found that it is important to pose a suitably direct question at the front end, and provide intelligent refinement and rehashing of ideas at the backend to generate usable solutions. It is also important to recognise that often the best ideas are not consensus driven, the ‘hidden gems’ are often the best ideas. In addition to this, collective wisdom is not always the best judge, as we see regularly on X Factor.

To provide an incentive, our governments need to take a role to regulate to protect our environment, and provide incentives to the markets to direct their efforts appropriately. In California, MUNI bonds have served as a mechanism to encourage citizens to invest in local infrastructure. It is this investment method that ‘Neighborly’, a recent startup seeking first stage investment, is looking to exploit and enhance by using modern technology. In a broader sense adapting the public finance initiative (PFI) model to a ‘public public partnership’ may provide an alternative source of finance while retaining state involvement. The key with this is the power of crowdfunding to assign value to peoples’ shared beliefs, with them accepting a lower return on investment than a commercial investor.

Whether methods such as crowdfunding change the way we deliver infrastructure investment will remain to be seen. However it is clear the digital engineering revolution is only just beginning, and the internet and technology are key enablers that are instigating this change. The traditional roles of the user, government, engineer and contractor in infrastructure delivery will evolve, but no matter how the schemes are funded, great engineers will still play a key role in transforming ideas into reality.

UK & Europe,

Around the time of the UK Government’s Energy White Paper in 2007, the main issue debated at the time was what forms of energy should supply our demands, while recognising the ‘trilemma’ of affordability, security of supply and sustainability. The logical conclusion was to provide a sustainable mix of generation consisting of renewables, nuclear and conventional generation, with a transition to low carbon generation. Eight years on and the energy mix remains a pertinent issue, but with the additional dimension now of where our energy is generated.

National Grid scenarios recognise this in the form of three types of generation, micro-generation (<1MW), distributed generation (<50MW) and grid scale generation. All scenarios considered by National Grid forecast an increase in overall installed generating capacity over the next 15 years, but also an increase in generation at the lower end of the scale. The contribution from micro and distributed generation is forecasted to rise from 17% last year to between 26% and 33% of installed capacity in 2030/31. There are a number of drivers behind this ‘decentralisation’ of generation. Principally it is driven by an increasing interest and uptake in district heating and heat networks to provide communities with combined heat and power, recognising that at least 40% of thermal energy from conventional power plants is rejected to the atmosphere and electricity transmission losses can be a further 5-10%.

There are now additional factors to consider. Traditionally, we have found economies of scale through building larger power systems, both in generation and networks. The rise of renewables challenges this view, with economies of scale now achieved through scale of manufacture and financing models, and operational efficiencies gained through technology. The short to medium term view will be more complex, particularly with the gradual removal of renewable subsidies and incentives, and technology such as smart meters reaching maturity.

However, in another ten years, we will look back at 2015 and realise that it marked the tipping point where renewable forms of generation started to become economically viable in their own right. Onshore wind is increasingly competitive with conventional forms of generation, with solar panel prices following closely behind, and set to overtake with 20% reductions in panel prices with each doubling of global manufacturing capacity (‘Swanson’s law’). In addition to this, the ongoing price reductions in battery storage technology, driven by investment in electric vehicles, will help manage the variability of renewable generation.

This raises the main economic question; when will consumers be able to take a five year view of their energy usage and decide it is cheaper to generate and store their own energy than buy it from the grid (at around 12p/kWh or £120/MWh)?

As soon as we consider this question, it raises a number of further issues. Standing charges to users and Capacity Markets for generators will be important to finance the maintenance and operation of existing assets that are increasingly relied upon for balancing power and resilience. Large scale consumers will increasingly look to grid scale generators to guarantee supply, either for national or economic interests. A good example of such users may be emergency services or operators of electric vehicle networks, as recently launched in London.

A further issue is around whether these changes are actually beneficial for the environment. Will it be effective in cutting our carbon emissions? Are there any negative environmental impacts that need to be considered and built into regulation? Have we fully thought through the consequences and will it enhance the security of supply and the overall resilience of energy system? These are the challenging questions we will be debating on the 23rd September in London, at Future Proofing Energy: Environment. In conjunction with Imperial College, Atkins has brought together key industry figures from finance, regulation, communities and generators, both large and small, to debate this and the wider issues around decentralised energy systems. Hopefully we’ll see you there.

UK & Europe,

Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Brin, Page. The Silicon Valley hall of fame, the first three are now household names, even on the other side of the world in Britain. But one name who still gets mixed reaction from people I talk to is Elon Musk. Perhaps all that is needed is time, and perhaps he will go down as one of the most influential engineers of the 21st Century. His aspirations of us being a multi-planet species and ending the use of fossil fuels led him to set up companies he believes in. He founded SpaceX, the private organisation ferrying cargo to the International Space Station, Tesla the pioneering electric car company and SolarCity, one of the fastest growing domestic and distributed solar firms in the US. He did this using seed capital from the sale of PayPal to eBay. It’s hard not to be impressed by his vision, determination and ability to come up with (sometimes obvious) solutions to engineering problems in the face of adversity. The world needs a few more big thinkers like this, ones who will create the solutions that, in 50 years’ time, make our problems now seem really easy.

In case you missed it, in 2013 he had an idea and asked a few of his engineers at SpaceX to work up a feasibility proposal for a new transport system called the Hyperloop, essentially a solar powered self-propelled bullet in a big pipe between San Francisco and Los Angeles. For anyone familiar with the west coast of America, you’ll know the geographic circumstances; two major conurbations almost 400 miles apart with a high demand for communication between the two and in between is the tortuous Pacific Coast Highway, or the broad open agricultural heartland of the Central Valley. With poor rail links, a road (‘the 5’) that is well travelled and takes just as long its name and regular flights which are more of a hop and a skip, it is a route yearning for another option. The Hyperloop’s big headline was that it would be faster (less than 1 hour journey time), quicker to develop and cheaper to fund than the recently proposed high speed rail link. While the speed remains to be seen – NASA contributors to the crowdsourcing concept development on JumpStartFund have done some pretty impressive analysis that challenges the original pipe size and headline speeds – the cost and programme definitely seem rather optimistic. Despite low land costs, developing a new form of transport and installing it adjacent to major highways and over active fault lines would make me a little cautious.

However, the concept is bold, daring and a completely different way of looking at a problem that is replicated across the globe. It has also grabbed attention and inspired people to dream. The key however is that they have also identified a gap in the market, less than 100 miles travel distance a car will almost certainly win, and over 500 miles a plane will be quicker and more convenient. It is in the middle ground that an efficient rail system should operate, but does it? Generally, I think Elon has identified a few things that are inhibiting rail, firstly that trains are not fast enough, they carry too many people to be flexible and as such aren’t frequent enough. Solve these three things and suddenly a rail type system is more efficient than waiting at an airport or sitting on the freeway. In this respect, the Hyperloop is a great new way of looking at the way we connect our cities.

Channel Tunnel St Pancras International station
The fit out of St Pancras International was the final stage of the overall high-speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link project which started in 1999 with a total construction cost of £5.2 billion. The tunnel and its ability to quickly link the major cities of London and Paris may be one of the key obstacles for a UK Hyperloop system.

So this leads me on to thinking, would it work in the UK? Unfortunately there are a number of factors against us here in Britain. Firstly we don’t have two mega cities that are so far apart with almost nothing else in between (sorry Fresno and Bakersfield). London does dominate the UK economy (rightly or wrongly) with the next major city being Paris. This route would be an obvious choice, however we do have a couple of pretty good feats of engineering and politics that have helped in the last two decades, notably the Channel Tunnel and HighSpeed1. Secondly, our topography isn’t quite as predictably flat as the Central Valley and thirdly we’re not a big country and as such land isn’t cheap. Finally, we have some pretty good countryside with plenty of natural variation that generally people don’t like building on. For these reasons, while I’d love to see Hyperloop in the UK, I don’t think it will be any time soon before we start contemplating it.

But hang on, does that mean our rail system is adequate for the 21st century? The appetite for HighSpeed2 between London and northern cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds clearly has identified a demand and desire to modernise. Atkins is also supporting the electrification of the Great Western Route from London which with Crossrail will be great for routes west of the capital. We’re also part of an alliance with Heriot-Watt University to support research into future rail technology.

But is this enough? The developments in automotive transport, that I wrote about in a recent Angles opinion piece, a world where we hail an Autonomous Electric Vehicle on our smartphone, really puts pressure on us to think more carefully about how our collective transportation systems interface with personal transport systems. Are there any of Elon’s ideas that we could steal and use to adapt our existing infrastructure? Can we re-engineer our rail vehicles to be more compact, hold fewer people and run closer to the track to travel faster and be more efficient? Can we re-engineer our stations to facilitate more non-stop services and the different rail vehicles? And with these improvements, can we provide more flexible and frequent services to provide a truly integrated system? These are the big questions on my mind at the moment, the perspective of an engineer looking from the outside in to our rail network.

UK & Europe,

Maintaining our ageing assets as we look to future solutions

In the UK, and similarly in many developed nations around the world, we are increasingly reliant upon major infrastructure commissioned in the 1970s and 80s, more often than not by government funded organisations. Many of our power stations and North Sea oil installations are reaching the end of their working lives, yet we are still heavily reliant upon them to power our cities, heat our homes and fuel our transport. While we set about providing the engineering solutions for the 21st century, there is still much work to be done to keep our existing 20th century assets going for a bit longer. The drivers are not just about keeping the lights on….it’s about meeting increasing demand, low carbon imperatives and maintaining maximum safety and resilience in the face of extreme events. Incidents such as Fukushima and Deepwater Horizon redouble our focus on safety, and political instability in the Ukraine and Middle East emphasise the importance of making our energy system resilient to supply disruption.

Engineers are playing a key role in ensuring the operation of our existing infrastructure remains economical, safe and sustainable. Atkins’ strategic partnership with EDF Energy is helping to ensure the UK’s eight nuclear power stations continue to supply low carbon, reliable electricity to businesses and homes across the UK. We are at the heart of the work to safely extend the life of those stations, while we also support the development of the next fleet of new nuclear reactors in Britain. This work spans years and decades, and includes making sure the graphite cores of the Advanced Gas Reactors (the type of reactor all of our nuclear stations use) remain stable to allow safe shutdown during an earthquake, or the boilers continue to provide cooling following extreme events as they reach the end of their design life. Our engineers are also close on hand when events require additional support, from enhancing safety in response to the 2011 Japanese earthquake, to design and assessment of modifications that can be made while the plant is offline for maintenance and inspection.

A similar story can be told when we look offshore, to the North Sea oil fields. Here, Atkins engineers provide full lifecycle support to around half the existing structures operating today. This covers everything from asset integrity management to decommissioning and we’re working for oil majors such as BP through our global strategic partnership, energy companies like Centrica and independent operators like Talisman. With the oil price at its lowest for four years, there is an increasing drive to maximise the output from our existing platforms, while maintaining the highest levels of safety to the operators and environment.

For over 30 years our engineers have provided trusted support and advice. The same is true back onshore, where our reliance upon coal for power is reducing, but we remain dependent on the Atkins engineered Drax power station, which still satisfies up to 10% of the UK’s demand. We started working with Drax back in the 1950s and with increasing pressure to reduce carbon emissions our engineers are now looking at innovative methods of retrofitting the power station – such as substituting up to 85% of coal for biomass in half of its burners. While simple in principle, this is a major and complex engineering challenge. In situations such as this, through life cycle support helps ensure modifications are carried out safely and economically.

At the heart of keeping existing power stations going, oil and gas platforms operating and transforming new technologies into viable forms of commercial electricity generation, engineers are the ones buying us time. Time with secure, affordable energy until complex decisions are made about what the next generation of energy infrastructure should look like. With such deep understanding of the current state of our energy infrastructure as well as the challenges and opportunities of the past, engineers are as vital to shaping an extraordinary energy future as investors and politicians – and they probably have a slightly greater sense of urgency.

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Technology changes, but one thing that doesn’t is its ability to grab attention and inspire people to think differently. Whether it’s light bulbs, steam engines or planes, the possibility of something new is perhaps more exciting than the reality.

In this respect, driverless cars have made headlines over the last few months, with Google conducting trials in California, to more recently road based trials being conducted in the UK. Atkins is proud to be part of the early stages of development, playing a key role as part of the Venturer consortium conducting trials in the engineering and tech cluster of Bristol.

It is difficult to comprehend how such a simple innovation as the removal of a driver could have such profound consequences for our travel system. While several companies predict driverless technologies to be available around 2020 (Tesla, Google and Mercedes, for example) it is not a question of if, but when mass uptake will happen. A safe bet would be within a decade of introduction, say 2030, as is the case with most major technological developments. My hunch is that it will happen sooner than this, perhaps in half the time.

With disruptive technologies, it is very difficult to forecast where they’ll go by extrapolating current market trends. However, what is important to understand is how ideas and innovations grow and evolve into bigger ideas.

If we look back on historic technological developments, it is rare that one idea changes the world. Instead, revolutions arise from the combination of technologies. A good recent example is the smartphone: a decade ago they barely existed; I can still remember the first time I saw an iPhone early in 2008. If we look more closely, it is clear that the smartphone is not solely a mobile telephone. Developments in capacitive touchscreen displays, GPS, Bluetooth, digital cameras, MP3 players, lithium ion battery technology, mobile (3G) internet and the app-orientated operating system have fused together to create an incredibly powerful piece of technology in everyone’s pockets.

With this in mind, a similar story can be predicted in the personal transport sector: driverless cars are not the only technology that has the potential to disrupt. Smartphone based taxi hailing systems such as Uber, recent advances in battery technology, aluminium manufacturing techniques, electric vehicles, 4G mobile phone networks, semi-autonomous technologies already in cars, organic PV cells, renewable sources of electricity, mesh networks are a range of recent developments where we will see synergies between each and every technology; each aspect will support and reinforce its counterparts.

Similarly, if we add in commercial drivers such as the need to free up valuable real estate in our cities, reduce congestion in the face of rising demand, increase capacity without incurring high capital costs, reduce insurance costs, avoid Single Occupancy Vehicles, increase the utilisation of vehicles, reduce susceptibility to volatile oil prices and increase productivity while travelling, there will be a significant impetus behind a paradigm shift in transportation.

There will be arguments against this view, but typically they will be based on 20th Century values and opinions. How many people actually own a vehicle they would enjoy driving more than be driven in? Do you need to own a car when it is cheaper and just as convenient to Uber one? When the first person is killed in or by a driverless car, will people forget that thousands of people currently die on our roads each year? Will cars be any more susceptible to being hacked than our internet bank accounts?

When thinking about timescales for adoption, it is also important to change our frame of reference. Rather than viewing the car as a transportation device, we should view it as a communication and energy storage device, or perhaps a big mobile phone on wheels. With this also in mind, we should also consider the ‘time constant’ that dictates the rate of change in an industry. For example, with three generations of technology developed in 75 years, perhaps the time constant for the nuclear industry is a long 25 years. The automotive sector is quicker and more fluid, perhaps just under a decade is reasonable.

However, when dealing with computer based system, Moore’s law governs – a doubling in transistors per square inch every couple of years. Perhaps this natural pace of innovation and change has facilitated such rapid developments in the internet, computing, mobile phone and related technology sectors, which is now over spilling into transportation. We are witnessing the early stages of a collision of two worlds – digital and physical. The battle has commenced.

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