Now that we’re deep into Autumn, with not very much of 2020 left (thanks for the reminder @ProgressBar202_), we spent some time on Friday afternoon asking ourselves “So how’s it all going?”..

Last supper for the Family G before Lockdown 2.0

Well with Brentford having a rocky start to the season; the clocks falling back to ‘British Wintertime’ last weekend; this week’s October half-term getaway to Anglesey proper cancelled; and with that weird bit between Christmas and New Year now only 2 months away, we’re looking for ways to beat the gloom..

However as is The Brentford Way- we’re trying to focus on what we can control: Bringing in top undiscovered talent, creating as many chances as we can, watching the finances – and avoiding doing anything stupid. Etc. But it’s too early really to tell how it’s all going – as, just like football, this is a ‘low-scoring game’, so does this mean that luck can play as much of a role as performance?

Let’s have a look.

The New Normal?

As COVID ramps up again (after its summer break) to ruin the rest of 2020 for us, we now find London in ‘Tier 2’ – which for us basically means no indoor mixing of households, and avoiding any unnecessary journeys anywhere. So not entirely different then from before – but it does mean that the chance to have a few drinks again with the neighbours/ ex-colleagues/ new contacts etc becomes a remote prospect for the rest of this year (and possibly until spring). Grim.

The Welsh border (and many Welsh local businesses) has just closed down again for two weeks, to coincide with this Oct half-term when we were planning to get up to Anglesey to smell the fresh Rhoscolyn air and stretch our legs on the headland. ‘First world problems’ maybe, but I was well looking forward to it – and not sure when we’ll next get the chance.

We’re grateful though to have our office space down at The Factory during these COVID times, so at least we can maintain some separation between home and work, and we’ve been able to set up a more creative selection of ‘Zoom backgrounds’ there than would have been possible at home. A bit ironic that the circumstances that led to us having our own office at all were in part precipitated by COVID (and the resulting drop in energy / fuel consumption globally). Anyway having a spot in the old factory has been working really well for Rosie and I, and has encouraged us to stretch our legs a bit through the day, and spend a bit more time exploring some of the nooks & lunch spots around Brentford, which I haven’t been able to do that much since we’ve lived here. Last Friday evening we enjoyed some noisy post-work wine & pizza with the kids which was a good laugh and a nice chance to do something ‘normal’ together. We’ll definitely be making the most of this space before the building gets knocked down in a couple of years’ time (as the Brentford Project comes to fruition), and look forward to being able to invite friends in again..

Wine and Santa Maria Pizza at Olwg HQ, The Factory, Brentford

It feels like plenty more big Change is in the air, not just learning to live & work with continued restrictions on movements / interactions, but also longer-term structural trends in how we will work. This lunchtime we had the pleasure of a really interesting webinar talk from Prof. Paul de Leeuw (Robert Gordons Uni Energy Transition Institute), titled ‘iPhone, iRobot, iCloud – should iWorry’, which he delivered to the ‘iChemE’ Oil & Natural Gas SIG (that I still help organise events for): Paul spoke about the continued evolution to what kind of work we will do (transactional -> strategic & creative), what roles / professions are more immune to being automated and more transferrable (including engineering & project mgt), how we learn new skills (experiential -> more formal learning), for what sectors of industry (oil & gas -> low-carbon energy) – and how COVID has already in 2020 accelerated many of these effects already anticipated pre-COVID. A couple of new words I heard for the first time during this talk were flexification (being sufficiently flexible to work from anywhere) and gigifiction (being readily able to form bespoke project teams to deliver ad-hoc commissioned assignments)! Hmm. Well I guess the key messages for me were that the rate of change is accelerating, and that we have to learn to adapt quickly to ‘the new normal’ / the future in order to not get left behind. This was also the first time I’d set up a Teams ‘Live Event’ session before (for an audience of >100) – so there was a new skill learned right there.

As I write this, a news bulletin flashes up that COVID deaths in ‘England & Wales’ are up by 53% on last week – so be careful out there and don’t take unnecessary risks. It’s going to be a long winter, but at least nobody will get the flu this time.

The Brentford Way?

Sadly, Brentford FC have had a rocky start to the season – including the dismal performance on the road at Stoke over the weekend, and Norwich scoring a late equaliser at home tonight for the first game under the lights at the new gaff. It was actually not quite as rocky as the start to last season – which in the end saw The Bees reach their highest league position in 73 years. So not the end of the world just yet.
Despite the initial excitement over moving into our splendid new stadium last month, all of this feels a bit muted / irrelevant considering we’ve not been able to get to see any live games since our 5-0 win over Sheffield Weds at Griffin Park in March. So instead, we now routinely rely on hooking up that sketchy iFollow stream from the laptop up to The Big Telly with a HDMI cable.

The silver lining of the current ‘no fans allowed in stadiums’ cloud is that we got invited a couple of weeks ago for a quick socially-distanced visit to our ‘new seats’ that we hope to occupy one day – the setup looks fantastic and we look forward to fans being let in when the time is right..

A Quick Visit to the Brentford Community Stadium (Lionel Road)

No matter about the league table for now: Form is temporary, class is permanent or something like that. Follow The Process, Trust The System, have faith – and with good performance if luck goes our way then the right Results will come. Brentford FC have by now become a bit legendary for their use of pioneering analytic methods to predict underlying performance metrics and ‘expected’ outcomes – and to help identify undervalued talent. That and their strong focus on traditional values, and ‘no dickhead policy’. Just last week, Rasmus (Co-Director of Football) talked about “why running a football club is not about is not about trying to do something brilliant, but more about avoiding doing anything stupid.” So proper risk management then.

This is the Brentford Way, and the values seems prudent for any business to live by.

Is Oil the New Tobacco?

“Oil is the New Tobacco” is a phrase I’ve heard increasingly whispered in disapproving tones, especially by those recently made a casualty of the various rounds of oil industry redundancies – and who may not be entirely sad at the opportunity to make a fresh start. It’s difficult to see at the moment – as it has been over the last 8 or so years – where the oil industry that has served us so well is heading. The debate rages on as to whether the collapse we’re seeing is the beginning of the end for ‘the new tobacco’, or if this is just a temporary feature of the usual oil cycle – where the next boom is around the corner (on the basis that ‘oil will be around for a long time’ / ‘so much of what we use is made out of oil’ etc). There is plenty of in-depth future analysis out there to support whatever viewpoint you might want to take, but the body of evidence in 2020 seems consistent in that both private and government support & investment seem to be heading only one way – and that’s away from fossil fuels, and quickly.

Last week saw BP’s lowest share price since before I even started work, Shell this year cut their dividend for the first time since second world war, and the number of offshore exploration wells in Norway is now at a 14-year low. Closer to home, the career casualties continue this week as plenty of ‘goodbye’ messages pop up on LinkedIn from yet another swathe of great long-term Tullow folks who depart and wonder what next..

There is a wealth of statistics that point to the same ‘sign of our times’. I’d speculate that unfortunately the only ‘BOOM’ we may see from now on in is a major accident – where the investigation findings will point to a lack of proper risk management and governance, amid a backdrop of systemic cost-cutting & complacency: No money and diminishing skills left to properly manage the dangers of live hydrocarbon.

Is Hydrogen the New Oil?

“Green Hydrogen is the New Oil” is another phrase I’ve seen pick up in the media this year, that many may have heard – and either like it or hate it. Whatever folks think of the Energy Transition, it’s not going away, and it does feel as though 2020 is the year that hydrogen starts to catch on / go mainstream. There’s a wealth of major project / infrastructure plans and national or technology roadmaps out there for the long-term adoption of hydrogen, but I’ve seen over the summer that the rate of news relating to hydrogen technology & project sanction seems to be accelerating. Even in just the last few days, here’s a shortlist of some hydrogen-related headlines that have hit the news, along with their source:

  • “NNDC backs Bacton hydrogen energy study” (North Norfolk District Council)
  • “Scotland to trial world’s first hydrogen-powered ferry in Orkney” (The Herald)
  • “MAN presents hydrogen roadmap; use in fuel cells and combustion engines” (Green Car Congress)
  • “Huge $50bn Pilbara green hydrogen hub granted major project status” (Renew Economy AU)
  • “Iceland’s Landsvirkjun and Port of Rotterdam agree to study shipping green hydrogen” (Platts S&P Global)
  • “Imperial College London: Entire UK Gas Network Could be Repurposed for Hydrogen” (H2 Tech Report)
  • “Spain sets a $10.5 billion Goal for Green Hydrogen” (Bloomberg)
  • “As Green Hydrogen Gains Favor, Europe Sees Early Signs of an Electrolyzer Manufacturing Boom” (Green Tech Media)
  • “’No electricity needed’: Oil company Repsol Aims to Turn Solar Straight into Hydrogen” (Recharge News)
  • “World’s first large size liquified hydrogen carrier gets AiP” (Seatrade Maritime News)

I don’t recall seeing anything this big in my career before, unless I just wasn’t paying attention (probably yes). This has to be a huge opportunity for chemical engineers with experience of onshore & offshore gas processing / development planning / project delivery? Surely?

Well for me the biggest and most exciting news over the last week is that the Holyhead Hydrogen Hub (will it be called HHH – or H2olyhead?) has secured funding from the Welsh Government to take the feasibility concepts into the next stage of engineering, to work up further technical & project definition on how green hydrogen (I am assuming powered by the Morlais Tidal Demonstration Zone from 2023+) can be phased over time to supply lovely clean hydrogen to trains, lorries, ferries, cars, barbecues or whatever.

Holyhead Port & Breakwater – as seen from Holyhead Mountain

Oh yes Holyhead and BRE*IT. I do wonder what impact leaving the EU in just a few weeks’ time might have on Irish-facing ports – in particular our dear Holyhead which I’ve read is UK’s 2nd largest lorry terminal: There are reports of how little preparation has been made around Holyhead area for lorry parks etc waiting to cross a new Irish Sea border; and that a new breed of Irish BRE*IT-busting super ferries will be shunning Welsh ports, instead heading straight over to the continent. Is this all just going to be another ‘Y2K’ (well technically a ‘Y2.021K’)- or another real nasty bug from 2019 waiting to inflict maximum misery this winter?

So How is it Actually Going?

Well despite all the gloomy stuff all around we’re doing our best to not take things too seriously, enjoy our time together – and be outside or inside and in our Griffiths bubble as much as we can..

After coming back from summer holiday, we’re only almost 2 months into establishing ‘work’ stuff – and as there isn’t a great deal of relevant paid work around this Autumn we’re focusing hard on learning, networking, building/showing prototype models, getting feedback etc – and then repeating that loop whilst minimising wasted work. Harry joined us just 1 month ago, and after getting him set up with Teams & cloud filing etc he’s been working from home (flexifying?) and putting together some valuable research & modelling work.

We’re enjoying managing our own time and doing things our own way, and are ready to hit the ground running for when we can find the right kind of paid work. So by all these measures I’d say we’re doing all the things we set out to do, are in good shape for the future – and are having some fun in the process.

But really it’s too early to tell how it’s all going – as, just like football, our business is a ‘low-scoring game’, where luck can play as much of a role as performance. Let’s hope we attract some of the right kind of luck this side of Christmas.

Tony (27th Oct)

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