Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The great pause - Pondering empowerment post Corona virus lockdown

During this pause in the human experiment of infinite growth on a finite planet, we all have time to ponder.  Questions like, how should we empower society as we emerge from the corona virus lockdown and what sort of benefits might we expect and hope for from this empowerment?

Something to hope for or just an interesting picture?
Airspeeder motorsport - a mixture of science fiction and gaming
Let's take a moment to further explore empowerment of individuals, how might we do this and what results might we expect.  There are already some pretty well understood candidates (and logically it seems many have self reinforcing aspects for the goal at hand), here are some good examples:
  • UBI providing individual freedom and hence more room for creativity
  • Free Education to degree level, hence encouraging and satisfying a thirst for knowledge
  • Government using and encouraging Open Source and Open Data
  • Prioritise walking and cycling, hence improving health, fitness, mobility, community connections and happiness
Plus, what if we combine these with wise long term environmental and economic goals (doughnut economics style):
With this new world fully embraced, what might this look like over time:
  • A healthy environment in balance with human society?
  • Increased local capabilities and resilience?
  • Increased time for important stuff like friends and family?
  • High levels of innovation and hence productivity?
  • Increased focus on digital tourism and digital sports events (e.g. where digital experience is the product, think visually realistic and physically active esports, think virtual spectator mixed with photo realistic virtual experiences extrapolated to tourism and new high tech sporting areas)?
  • Increased reverence for nature and the outdoors (where international tourism for pure physical outdoor experiences becomes a premium highly sought after product)?
  • Increasingly complex and interconnected local society (more holistic)?
  • A more equal society?
  • Increasing richness in art and culture?
  • Increased general interest in wondering about life, the universe and our place in it?
  • People are energized and alive with tangible opportunities to participate and thrive in society?
  • A society that treats Earth as our valued and cherished home, but increasingly looks beyond our home planet for the future?
I'll leave you to ponder these questions or to create your own list of thoughts and ideas.  Either way, I'm sure you will continue to make good use of your very own and very valuable corona-induced dilated time bubble.

Friday, September 6, 2019


India is currently in a massive government lead push to transition much of its transportation fleet to electric vehicles.

iXEnergy, an innovative New Delhi based company have been pushing ahead with their own EV and hybrid vehicle technology development plans.  Just this week gone the iXEnergy team have completed hybrid bus commissioning for their second OEM customer.  Well done to all the team!

Chris and the iXEnergy team
Greenstage and ScottDrive are proud to be supporting iXEnergy on this journey.  Every little bit helps as India and the world transitions towards a cleaner and more economic transportation fleet.  Well done to everyone involved and keep up the good work.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Commentary on Electric Vehicle adoption in NZ

Price is no longer a barrier to electric vehicle (EV) adoption.  In fact, in New Zealand I would argue that price is now a driver for EV adoption if you are willing to look at the numbers.

For city driving, it now makes obvious sense to replace your petrol powered vehicle with an EV.  If you are driving a petrol powered car an average of 70 km per day, 6 days a week, then depending on your vehicle's fuel efficiency, its easy to be spending $50-100 per week on gas (in NZ petrol is currently around $2.30 per litre).

As well as this obvious saving, you will also be saving the wasted time and effort of going to a service station each week when the petrol tank needs topping up (with an EV, you just top up at home each night).

With some second hand EV's from Japan now available for less than $NZ 10,000, savings on petrol can very quickly pay this back (I'll let you do the sums).  Plus if you are buying this EV instead of an equivalent petrol powered car, the savings are immediate.

EV - no need for weekly visits to the service station.
Driving without the concern for the high cost of fuel, driving without the concern for the stinky butt smoke emanating from the rear of your car, driving without the concern of the upcoming or overdue oil change!!? A return to driving just for the fun of it, what's not to like.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Testing the generic Modbus Device plugin

One of the cool plugins recently being tested for SolarNode is called "Modbus Device", it allows admins to add new hardware that supports the Modbus RTU and TCP protocols. Check out this link that describes using the Modbus Device plugin to talk to a thermopile pyranometer.  It's a pretty quick and easy process in terms of supporting a new industrial scientific instrument.

Pyranometer - measures irradiance (W/m2)
We see this device as extremely relevant to tracking solar array performance. Knowing quantitatively how a pyranometer is measuring sunlight near a PV array means that you have a metric for what you should expect from the array in terms of kilowatt-hours (kWh) generated. We expect to be able to use these irradiance figures as an input to SolarQuant (our non-linear energy data analysis engine) and then to inform admins as to whether actual performance is stacking up.  That means extracting more value from your solar array!

Automating this process is what is going to count - check back here for an update on SolarQuant development, there are more interesting developments coming up soon....

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

SolarQuant gets a push forward from University of Auckland

One of the exciting developments at Greenstage Power has been some collaboration with University of Auckland on our experimental machine learning module called SolarQuant. This is the stand alone app server that takes consumption or generation data and aims to learn how that energy flow happened, based on the context of when it happened and what the environmental conditions were at the time. We had a visitor to New Zealand from MIT Engineering named Paige Studer, and she was instrumental at giving SolarQuant a push forward. We interviewed Paige below on the project:

Tell us a little about what you worked on at UofA
During my time at the University of Auckland, I had the privilege to work on SolarQuant, which is a program that is working to accurately predict a building’s energy consumption given a set of inputs such as time, weather, temperature, etc. When I arrived at the UofA, the current state was that SolarQuant could take inputs and a building’s energy consumption to find weights for each of the inputs. Then given only the inputs and found weights, it would map how closely the calculated energy consumption matched the actually energy consumption. The next step was to see if we could get similar results by taking predicted inputs, getting a calculated energy consumption, and compare it with the actual inputs with actual consumption.
One of the main factors in being able to do this was formatting the predicted weather so that it looked the same as the actual weather, with the exception of a type id showing that it was predicted and not actual. The predicted weather was taken from Norwegian weather, in the form of an XML file. The program would go through the file and find entries that had all of the information that we needed and added them to an initial array. This array with the predicted weather data had problems, such as not being sorted, having repeating information, etc. This initial array needed to be cleaned up and adjusted to make it look like real data. A second array was constructed so that the time of each prediction was in chronological order and separated by thirty minutes, without any repeating or missing times. Once this was completed, the program would go through that array, create weather datum objects and place those objects into a database to be used in the future.
Because the future weather in the database looked the same as actual weather in the database, we could use it on the SolarQuant platform. From here the program takes the future weather data, downloads it, and instead of training it on energy consumption, it skips straight to the questioning stage since it is the future there is no energy consumption to train off of. After this, John was going to add his code and we would hopefully see predicted energy consumption and eventually compare this with actual energy consumption for the same time period.
Do you think it will work?
Yes, of course I think it will work! Theoretically it will, so if it doesn’t right away it would be due to some bugs in the code that can be fixed. I’m very excited to see where it goes in the future once it is working, because there are some pretty cool applications. One in particular that I find to be interesting is if we can accurately predict the weather and a building’s energy consumption, given a solar/battery system, you could potentially become smarter at when to charge and discharge your battery.
As a developer what are the challenges SolarQuant is going to have – what should we get ready for?
I think that SolarQuant will only be getting better and faster, and that it will be important to stay flexible and be able to adjust with the program. For instance, one thing that John and I had talked about was possibly using a different weather source for predicted weather and how to handle it. Do you make one function that can handle all different weather sources, make a function for each weather source, etc? Being open to change in the code and sources in the future will make a difference in how well SolarQuant will continue to progress. I think one idea that John reiterated that was helpful is we want to walk before we run, meaning let’s make small additions/changes and make sure that works before progressing. We don’t want to write all this code and have it not work without us knowing why.
Did you like NZ? We heard you went bungy jumping!?
New Zealand was absolutely awesome! I loved meeting new people, learning about the Maori culture, and especially loved the adventure atmosphere of New Zealand. On the weekends I was able to go on lots of side trips, my favorite being Queenstown where I did the Kawarau Bridge bungy jump, Waitomo black water rafting, and sand boarding while I was visiting the Bay of Islands.
What are the next plans, where to?
I will begin working at a solar energy company in Southern California that specializes in getting schools solar energy, often in the form of carports. I will be an Assistant Project Engineer there, and I hope to learn more about solar energy projects, continue to grow my skillsets, and make a positive impact on the community.

SolarQuant comparing predicted consumption (blue) with actual (orange) consumption after training on 1 year of data

Some of the results from Paige's work coming in are shown above in a screenshot of the SolarQuant interface. The trained network predicted a time series in light blue here, and the actual power consumption is shown in orange. Thanks once again to Dr. Nirmal Nair at University of Auckland ECE who made this possible! And developers can checkout SolarQuant as it progresses here: git@github.com:SolarNetwork/solarquant.git

Sunday, May 28, 2017

FreeBSD with Poudriere on ZFS with custom compiler toolchain

The SolarNetwork main infrastructure has always run on FreeBSD. FreeBSD is great for allowing packages to be built with options suited to how you want to use it, by building packages from source via the ports tree. FreeBSD has evolved over the years since SolarNetwork started to distributing binary packages via the pkg tool. That can save a lot of time, not having to compile all the software used from source, but doesn't work if some package needs a different set of compiled-in options than provided by FreeBSD itself. Additionally, I'd been compiling the packages using a specific version of Clang/LLVM rather than the one used by FreeBSD (originally because one package wouldn't compile without a newer compiler version than used by FreeBSD).

Fast forward to now, and FreeBSD has a tool called poudriere, which can compile a set of packages with exactly the options needed and publish them as a FreeBSD package repository, from which any FreeBSD machine can then use to download the binary packages from and install them via pkg. It's a bit like starting your own Linux distro, picking just the software and compile options you need and distributing them as pre-built binary packages.

Finally I took the time to set up a FreeBSD build machine running poudriere (in a virtual machine) and can much more easily perform updates on the SolarNetwork infrastructure. There was just one major stumbling block along the way: I didn't know how to get pourdriere to use the specific version of Clang I needed. There is plenty of information online about setting up poudriere, but I wasn't able to find information online about getting it to use a custom compiler toolchain. After some trial and error, here's how I finally ended up accomplishing it:

Create toolchain package repository

Poudriere works with FreeBSD jails to manage package repositories. Each package distribution uses its own jail with its own configuration such as what compiler options to use and which packages to compile. The first task is to create a package repository with the toolchain packages needed, in my case this is provided by the devel/llvm39 package. This toolchain repository can then be installed in other poudriere build jails to serve as their compiler.

Once poudriere was installed and configured properly, the steps looked like this:

# Create jail
poudriere jail -c -j toolchain_103x64 -v 10.3-RELEASE
mkdir /usr/local/etc/poudriere.d/toolchain_103x64-options

# Create port list (for this jail, just the toolchain needed, devel/llvm39)
echo 'devel/llvm39' >/usr/local/etc/poudriere.d/toolchain-port-list

# Update to latest (each time build)
poudriere jail -u -j toolchain_103x64
poudriere ports -u -p HEAD

# Configure options
poudriere options -j toolchain_103x64 -p HEAD \
    -f /usr/local/etc/poudriere.d/toolchain-port-list

# Build packages
poudriere bulk -j toolchain_103x64 -p HEAD \
    -f /usr/local/etc/poudriere.d/toolchain-port-list

After quite some time (llvm takes a terribly long time to compile!) the toolchain packages were built and I had nginx configured to serve them up via HTTP.

Create target system package repository

Now it was time to build the packages for a specific target system. In this case I am using the example of building a Postgres 9.6 based database server system, but the steps are the same for any system.

First, I created the system's poudriere jail:

# Create jail
poudriere jail -c -j postgres96_103x64 -v 10.3-RELEASE

# Create port list for packages needed
echo 'databases/postgresql96-server' \

echo 'databases/postgresql96-contrib' \

echo 'databases/postgresql-plv8js' \

# Configure options
poudriere options -j postgres96 -p HEAD \
    -f /usr/local/etc/poudriere.d/postgres96-port-list

Second, install the llvm39 toolchain, using the custom toolchain repository:

# chroot into the build jail
chroot /usr/local/poudriere/jails/postgres96_103x64

# enable dns resolution for the build server (if DNS names to be used)
echo 'nameserver' > /etc/resolv.conf

# Copy /usr/local/etc/ssl/certs/poudriere.cert from HOST
# to /usr/local/etc/ssl/certs/poudriere.cert in JAIL
mkdir -p /usr/local/etc/ssl/certs
# manually copy poudriere.cert here

Then I configured pkg to use the toolchain repository via a /usr/local/etc/pkg/repos/poudriere.conf file:

poudriere: {
    url: "http://poudriere/packages/toolchain_103x64-HEAD/",
    mirror_type: "http",
    signature_type: "pubkey",
    pubkey: "/usr/local/etc/ssl/certs/poudriere.cert",
    enabled: yes,
    priority: 100

The URL in this configuration resolves to the directory where poudriere build the packages, served by nginx. Next I installed the toolchain, explicitly telling pkg to use this repository:

pkg update
pkg install -r poudriere llvm39

# clean up and exit the chroot
rm /etc/resolv.conf

Now I can configure poudriere to use the toolchain by creating a /usr/local/etc/poudriere.d/postgres96_103x64-make.conf file with content like this:

# Use clang

DEFAULT_VERSIONS+=pgsql=9.6 ssl=openssl

The next step is what took me the longest to figure out, probably because I had not studied how poudriere works with ZFS very carefully. It turns out poudriere makes a snapshot of the jail named clean, and then clones that snapshot each time it performs a build. So all I needed to do was re-create that snapshot:
# Recreate snapshot for build
zfs destroy zpoud/poudriere/jails/postgres96_103x64@clean
zfs snapshot zpoud/poudriere/jails/postgres96_103x64@clean

Finally, the build can begin normally, and the custom toolchain will be used:

# Build packages
poudriere bulk -j postgres96_103x64 -p HEAD \
    -f /usr/local/etc/poudriere.d/postgres96-port-list

Update target system to use poudriere repository

Once the system's build is complete, it is possible to configure pkg on that system to use the toolchain repository via a /usr/local/etc/pkg/repos/poudriere.conf file:

poudriere: {
    url: "http://poudriere/packages/postgres96_103x64-HEAD/",
    mirror_type: "http",
    signature_type: "pubkey",
    pubkey: "/usr/local/etc/ssl/certs/poudriere.cert",
    enabled: yes,
    priority: 100

Then I copied the certificate from the build host to the file as configured above. I no longer want to use the default FreeBSD packages on this system, so I created a /usr/local/etc/pkg/repos/freebsd.conf file to disable it, with the following content:

FreeBSD: {
    enabled: no

Done! Now, after running pkg update, all packages will install from the poudriere repository, and I no longer need to compile the software on the system itself.

Friday, May 26, 2017

VivaTech 2017

This year Greenstage will be at VivaTech in France from June 15th to 17th.  We will be sharing our distributed energy solutions with the world and showing off our latest and greatest R&D.

Viva Technology
If you are planning on coming along, check us out in the VivaTech Vinci Energy Lab.

See you there!