Buying assets in rain, snow and sunshine

The air traffic control revolution will be televised.

Remember Enron? Back in the late 1990s, a few short years before it filed what was then the largest bankruptcy case in US history, the energy behemoth began trading in weather derivatives. In the same way that it made millions manipulating the electricity market in California, Enron wanted to develop complex financial instruments to hedge against adverse or unexpected weather conditions.

The fact that the underlying asset (rain, snow, temperature) had no obvious value that could be used to price the derivative was problematic, but by the time Enron imploded in a wave of accounting scandals, its Enron Weather subsidiary was turning a profit. The message was clear: big business was no longer trading in tangible commodities such as natural gas alone; in the future, everything, the abstract, the ethereal – even the elements themselves – could potentially be bought and sold.

Fast forward a decade and the UK’s communications regulator Ofcom has just produced £2.34bn out of thin air, so to speak, by auctioning off the new 4G mobile spectrum. From 2014, smartphone and tablet computer users can look forward to download speeds up to 100Mbps, five to ten times quicker than current 3G networks.

But while politicians continue to lock horns over a reported Treasury shortfall of £1bn from the auction and tech-heads debate the potential merits and pitfalls of broadband’s brave new world, a critical upgrade project undertaken by NATS, the UK’s leading supplier of air traffic control (ATC) services, has quietly slipped under the radar.

The organisation has become the first operator to future-proof its ATC systems against potential interference from 4G telecommunications masts.

“The impact of the 4G network on safety is fundamental in that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to detect all aircraft in our airspace,” says Graeme Henderson, NATS’ general manager for engineering policy and design.

NATS has solved the problem by upgrading its existing radars with filters that suppress the electrical waves generated by the 4G frequencies, and is offering support and engineering expertise to other ATC operators.

With aviation passenger numbers in Europe forecast to almost quadruple by 2030, competition between commercial and government-sponsored entities for the UK’s already overcrowded airwaves is set to become even more intense, as are calls to overhaul the nation’s aging radar system, which is struggling to deal with interference from 21st-century phenomena such as onshore wind turbines.

One radical solution is multi-static primary surveillance radar, which works by using existing TV aerials around the UK. Each transmitter will receive the identical TV signal but at a slightly different time due to interactions with nearby air traffic. The received signals are then compared to the original broadcast, and the difference is used to pinpoint the position of the aircraft.

The EU is already looking to release more spectrum for next-generation 5G mobile services by 2020; multi-static primary surveillance technology would free up that space, meaning the UK Government could sell off bandwidth currently used by airports.

Radar systems, like everything else in the commercial aviation industry, rarely remain static for long.

Read the full feature here:  http://www.airport-technology.com/features/featuremobile-spectrum-nats-radar-uk-air-traffic-control/

Photograph: Getty Images

Julian Turner works for NRIdigital, part of Progressive Media.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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