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Monday, 19 March 2012

The problem with 'free' power

The World Wildlife Fund, WWF, assures us that we can and will have all the energy we need from renewable resources by 2050. The Energy Report assures us that

"Switching to renewable energy isn't just the best choice. It's our only option. The way the world produces and uses energy today is not sustainable."

I'm not sure that I find this argument at all convincing although I will admit that the picture of the wonderful curve of off-shore wind turbines presents a classically proportioned artistic image.  It does not, of course, show the corpses of the sea-birds that will have flown into them, being birds of relatively little brain, nor the seabed disruption caused by the concrete platforms.  An array much larger than this is being built of the coast of Aberdeenshire near Balmedie.  The potential eyesore is of sufficiently damaging potential to have forced Donald Trump to stop digging up my most favourite sand-dunes to provide yet another golf course, so not all is bad news.  (Scotland in general and Aberdeen in particular really does not need yet another golf course.)  What is bad news is that I used to sail those waters in a 32ft Albin Express, a wonderful racing yacht belonging to a friend of mine.  Now, there will be an exclusion zone around the damned rotors of progress forcing small craft further out into the grey North Sea, where they will come upon yet more exclusion zones around the platforms draining fossil fuels from beneath the ocean.  No energy comes free, if we wish to live in a technological world, we must pay one way or another, it is how to balance cost with benefit that should concern us.

Now in a local sense, I am all in favour of small scale renewable energy initiatives.  There are many small 1kWH generators on private dwellings in remote areas of Scotland, they cut fuel bills, possibly put the major energy provider of much of Highland region on short time, but then, Mr Honda simply goes safely into the barn, byre or shed to come out again when the wind does not blow.  This is Scotland, so the wind is unlikely not to blow for a lot of the time.  My first encounter with Scottish innovation took place in about 1987 somewhere between Clachnaben (a smal mountain with a 'Beano'-style lump on its head) and the (infamous) Banchory to Fettercairn road, often the first to be announced in late autumn as being closed by snow.  With skis strapped to my pack and the wings of my winter boots open to allow walking rather than locked tight to facilitate skiing or climbing, my friend and I trudged through heather, descending from the snowline to the track to walk out.  Our skiing had been cut short by the lack of snow, so we were on wild land, not on a path.  Then we met that pseudo Australian feature so necessary when you wish to grow trees anywhere where there is a wild Red Deer population, the fence.  This fence was huge, fifteen feet high and snaking as far as the eye could see in any direction, so, bend at 90° at the waist to get the skis parallel to the ground and pass one leg through the fence, get feet firm, lean on the knuckles of one's damp dachstein mitts and draw the other leg through, easy.  This however was when I felt the tingle, my knuckles were tingling and getting very warm, the fence was electrified!  I made the fatal mistake (well, figuratively 'fatal' rather than litteraly, obviously) of reacting to this discovery and found myself stranded like a turtle with by boot fast to the wire of the fence by the hooks of its 'wings'.  From then on there was a danse macabre, a ballet terrible as my friend tried to free me from the infernal power of the fence.  I had experience of electric fences from my farming friends and as we tramped along following my rescue I conjectured on just exactly how powerful the battery would need to be to effectively electrify this truly gargantuan fence in such a remote area, then we heard it... a single tilting target to tempt poor Don Quixote, a roaring, whirling generator kissed by the gentle gale of the southern foothills of the Cairngorms.  That windmill provided "free" power to enable that which could not otherwise be done to be done, by a single land-owner for his own purposes, I can live with that.

On the last occasion that I travelled to London from my cosy Cotswold home on a normally reliable service following track that was originally the great Mr Brunel's seven foot gauge, I had to detour by several other lines and train companies (I prefer the English "Railway Company", to use train in this context always smacks of Americanism, however it is correct, the tracks belong to Network Rail, only the trains a run by the franchisee.) and very well organised it was too; I arrived in Marylebone rather than Paddington, but only half an hour later than I should.  Now what was the cause of this adventure?  Well, not all of the residents of the Home Counties are genteel, some go by the collective "Chavs" and are prone to salvage shiny metals from a number of locations for the benefit of scrap metal dealers.  Two of the most lucrative sources currently being church roofs and railway signalling cables.  The mind boggles at the thought of what the essentially honest and diligent inhabitants of such stable countries as Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, Libia, Paestine/Israel (let's not go there...) and Syria.  Surely if the WWF dream of an international grid harvesting african sunshine to produce electricity to feed Western Europe laid massive cables, then the locals would not stoop to simple capitalist enterprise and liberate the metal facilitating this miracle of "free electricity".  Of course they would not.  I wonder where the metal would come from?  There is already a world shortage of copper; I feel that the day approaches when Victorian and Edwardian sub-sea cables no longer in use will be salvaged legitimately to permit simple rewiring of our homes.  Copper mining is a filthy business, Cornwall is beautiful today, just as the Severn valley is at Coalbrookdale.  Imagine them two hundred years ago, filthy, burning, discoloured, highly polluted, but that was small scale, in China today, huge tracts of land are laid waste by metal and rare earth mining, Tantalum, used for capacitors, that last and tricky piece of minaturisation that allows the mobile phone or pad or mp3-player to be the size it is, has horrific tolls associated with its mining and raw production.  We do not live in a nice world, but we are sheltered from the horrors in our cosy Western cocoon.

An analysis of the WWF report written by John Thackara; "When renewable Energy Becomes a Snake Oil Recipe"  mentions some of the costs that the WWF seem to believe will simply be paid by a blind and obliging world to facilitate its, frankly somewhat delusional, claims.  The paragraph, (he uses single sentence paragraphs, which I hate being old and having an attention span >140 charachters)  "The Energy Report also makes wind and sun energy sound clean and weightless when their impact on the real world is far less benign." particularly caught my eye.  I wil now quote the following section of his rebuttal;

‘We need to acknowledge the true costs of any energy development’ warns Pavlik. ‘When a dam is built, a river is lost – but people who turn on their tap and draw that water rarely think about the river that was destroyed to produce it. If we place industrial technologies in what city people regard as wilderness, there will be less awareness of the damage, less incentive to conserve’.

Despite such warnings, vast projects are in the pipeline. According to the LA Times, the total public land under consideration for alternative energy production exceeds 1.45 million acres in California alone.

In India, negative impacts of green energy are already starting to be felt. A wind farm project under way in Pune has destroyed protected forests and threatens farmland in the area. Bombay’s High Court, responding to a public interest petition, ordered a halt on tree felling — but blasting and other destructive activities continue. At another wind power project in Andhra Lake 300,000 trees were felled by an Indo-German enterprise called Enercon to construct an access road along the hills; the consortium had permission to cut 26,000. Many rare plants and shrubs, found only in the western Ghats, have been destroyed because of dumping of rubble from blasted rocks.

Environmental activists allege the project was authorized on the basis of false promises that ‘there is no wildlife in the area’.

Let us examine the wider picture, unlike the domestic turbine in Scotland that requires a few feet of wire to connect it to the domestic supply, or the single windmill that powers the deer fence, we are talking vast arrays of huge and costly machinery (or solar arrays) each of which may, in its single entity, produce available power cleanly, but needs to be connected to every other part of the array and then to some supply network.  A lot of copper for the 'chavs' then!   The contol and switching circutry, not a simple on/off switch by any means, especially if the much vaunted "load-balancing" argument is in use, sub-stations, transformers and all the paraphenalia of distribution networks.  Then there is the maintenance; once you have all of this in place, it is so costly that it would have been not only cheaper but more environmentally friendly to rely on the old-fashioned fossil fuel sytem in the first place.  Power stations, even the old nasty ones do not cover hundreds of square miles, modern ones are also clean and efficient in addition to being small.  They require small workforces compared to the huge coal burners of the past, belching their steam from cooling towers; all that wasted energy... there are a few of those left as they are of such immense size that they remain effective, but the last few cooling towers that I have seen or read of in the news were being demolished!  We have moved on, we may need to go further, but let us remain honest.

Read Mr Thakera's paper, it might open a few eyes.  We will, one day, use up all of the viable fossil fuel reserves and then we need to have alternatives in place, but let us do it honestly, openly and without the "Snake Oil".


  1. Well, having just cycled "around the block" I have seen another example of "sensible" use of "free" power. (sorry about all the quotes, but blogspot don't easily do italics or bold.) The sewage farm in our locality needs a certain amount of "always on" power for control circuitry and monitoring equipment; it also need heavy power instantly for what is known as a "pump-out" drain, in other words, some of us in houses at the top of the hill who used to have septic tanks and are now on mains require Thames Water to "shovel the sh*t uphill", which is against both its natural instincts and the fundamental law of gravity. I noted on my little trip that they have installed a fairly large solar array in the otherwise lost ground of the site. That ground used to be covered in brambles and builders' rubble, so no great loss, it was regularly treated with weed-killer until the 1990s. This equipment will probably provide all of the daily monitoring power, perhaps even pumping a little back into the grid on a day like today, however, it will also keep the main power connection "on its toes" which (imho, just a guess.) should reduce the chances of a failure during a rain-storm when we want those pumps running to ensure that they keep taking ours and don't allow us to get everyone elses!