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Sunshine, south westerlies and skylines…


During the last few years, the green energy debate has become a huge subject, both in engineering and the outdoors.  Scores of wind turbines and solar panels have appeared across the countryside and coastline, and there seems no end in sight to their construction.  Some people love them, others hate them.  One things for sure though – they’re here to stay.  Besides my mountaineering exploits, I’ve spent over 25 years in electrical engineering and see what many of these sites actually produce when it comes to so-called ‘green energy’.  So, here’s the low down as I see it…

For centuries windmills were an almost unnoticed part of the landscape.  They served the important task of grinding corn or pumping water and silently did their work. Many became redundant with the onset of electricity, although some have now been restored as museums or monuments (I’m a trustee of one myself).  Like many ‘old things’, people hold onto them for grim death to preserve them from collapse or falling into disrepair.  Enter the electricity generating wind turbine…

In essence it does the same job as the windmill – harnessing the energy of the wind, but on a much grander scale.  The tallest recorded traditional windmill is 42.5m (140ft) high, with the largest electricity generating turbine being 135m (442ft) (You can hear the grumbling starting already).  Whilst many traditional mills were built few and far between, fields of generating turbines have appeared overlooking the land.  Here is where the arguments start as many people want electricity twenty-four hours a day, but don’t want anything building in their area that alters the landscape.  They become ‘NIMBY‘s’ (not in my back yard), and there are plenty of them around.  Every building project I have ever heard of brings crowds of arguments from somewhere, but this is nothing new.  When the Headstone Viaduct was built across the River Wye at Monsal Head in 1863, John Ruskin wrote –

‘There was a rocky valley between Buxton and Bakewell, once upon a time, divine as the Vale of Tempe… You Enterprised a Railroad through the valley – you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream. The valley is gone, and the Gods with it; and now, every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton; which you think a lucrative process of exchange – you Fools everywhere’.

People now look on it as a beautiful construction which holds a cycle and foot path through the Derbyshire Peak District.

The largest generating array I have seen is off the east coast of Lincolnshire, near Skegness. The Lynn and Inner Dowsing arrays have supplied up to 90MVA and 70MVA respectively (approx 500 houses per MVA) from the power of the wind.  This sounds very green indeed, but you have to remember that a huge support team, numerous ships and onshore cable work are need to keep these things working, not including the upgrading of the electricity network to push the power to where it’s needed.  Many turbine sites are remote from urban centres, requiring major infrastructure upgrading.  I wonder if the generator owners contribute to the cost..?

There is also the other problem – the wind.  As an electrical engineer, I need power 24 hours a day, non stop to fit the country’s demand.  Excuses such as ‘there’s no wind’ will not make customers happy (and as I write this blog entry the above mentioned array is generating nothing).  The Mountaineering Council of Scotland has some interesting facts and figures here

Believe me, I’ve seen and heard first hand what people say and do when the lights go out, and and it’s not pretty.  I’ve seen fights and arguments over this precious commodity, and that’s how we should view electricity – It’s precious.  Of course, there’s enough hot air being blown too and fro from politicians, planners, developers, protesters and the public to power the entire country…

Planning and wind farms will always be a contentious issue.  I noticed recently the Kirkstone Pass Inn has a few small turbines spinning away, but they are hard to see from a distance and supply only the inn (which has never had mains power). On the other end of the scale, five turbines are being constructed at Harborough Rocks, which will completely destroy unhindered views of over 30 miles.

Many modern buildings have wind turbines fitted on their roofs to enhance their (so-called) green credentials. Frankly these are a joke as many of them are too small to be of real use. The sets on the roof at Derby University are often turned off because they create too much vibration and noise through the building..! The trouble is that the public see them standing there and think that they are saving the earth, when actually they’re doing quite the opposite.

One of the biggest news story regarding wind turbines was due to the building of a new National Grid line through the Cairngorms National Park.  Public emotion was at a high when the initial plan was submitted and I saw posters and car stickers for years complaining about the proposal.  There was already a steel tower line in the park, so provided that was upgraded I wouldn’t have a problem, but we have to accept some changes if we believe in green energy.  Someone has to take the hit on the skyline, it’s just who.

Personally if we need turbines, I’d prefer them all offshore in large arrays where the winds are better, we can build a single infrastructure and the public perception is mitigated, but the RAF don’t like them as they disrupt low-level radar.  The United Nations also seems to have taken an interest in future wind farm planning

Solar energy has taken huge steps over the past few years, from a few panels on a moored boat to hundreds of acres on solar farms.  The technology has advanced so far that even here in the UK, we can generate considerable amounts of energy by covering grassland and abandoned airfields with thousands of panels.  Green energy galore you may say, but remember that to be truly green they must be effectively recycled , and only have a 25 year lifespan.  The array at Wymeswold in Leicestershire is spread over 150 acres and generates around 30MVA worth of energy in the summer sunlight, but here’s the catch.  When you’re all going home for your tea on a dark winters night, they won’t be doing a jot..!  Even a passing cloud reduces generation markedly.  More sites are planned for brown field sites across the UK.

I was recently at a friend’s house and noticed that their roof had been fitted with panels. I’d always thought them a bit of a waste of money, but then my friend put me right “well they’re earning more on my roof than the equivalent money in the bank”.

The press is lately full of protests and arguments about ‘fracking‘.  Here is a process which has brought the cost of energy crashing in the USA, but is still contentious here.  Now I’m no expert on the subject, except for one occurrence – protesting.  I am lucky enough to enjoy living in a democracy and have no issue whatsoever with peaceful protesting. However, a huge camp was built in Sussex, protesting about drilling for oil (not fracking), yet no-one is presently camped at any fracking sites.  So what are they doing..?  All I can say from what I see is a media circus enjoying argument and over excitement, people milling around (many who look like they are professional protesters or squatters), and little gained on either side except a blowing off of steam.

Here’s a term that many of you won’t recognise, but people in the government and electricity industry will – Black Start. The fateful day when everything goes wrong and the lights go out.  Don’t think I’m scaremongering here, as it’s an extremely serious subject and it could happen.  In 2003, 50 million people lost their electricity in North America in 38 seconds.  People assume that there is some kind of Baron Frankenstein figure with a big switch that will save us all, but they’re dreaming.  Let me tell what the experts think could happen if the UK suddenly goes dark…

  • Three hours in – Public Telecoms down, traffic in gridlock, rail travel stopped, air and sea ports closed
  • Six hours in – No retail trade, failure of localised water supplies, vehicles running short of fuel, major workload for emergency services
  • Nine hours in – emergency services telecoms failing, no public lighting, public hygiene issues, no domestic hot water
  • Twelve hours in – Government ministers exercise emergency powers, hospital and welfare services overwhelmed, widespread breakdown of law and order in urban areas

(Twelve hours is quoted as the minimum time that the national grid could be brought back to anything like normal running)

The National Grid was first constructed in the 1930’s to tie the independent generators together.  It was designed to allow electricity to flow out from the power stations and this has worked for many years.  However times have changed and instead of huge coal fired power stations generating from central points, the generation is now embedded into the network. This has caused major issues and a great deal of work is needed to redesign the grid. It is going to take major central investment.  I just wonder how much will come from the generators, or from central government.

You many be surprised to know that the steel lattice towers that many people moan about were actually designed as Art Deco masterpieces, though more modern designs have since been considered…

There are also sites which generate using hydro, methane, waste digestion and who knows what else, and we could go on forever.  Even these have arguments, protesters and critics on both sides.  By the way, did you know that many of the companies who construct and run sites in the UK are not British..?  I do hope they pay their taxes…

Consistent energy will take a mix of wind, solar, gas, oil, coal, nuclear and hydro, but it’s the balance which is the difficult bit.  Whatever we do, we need to do it on a big scale.  People don’t want to burn hydrocarbons, but they do want non stop electricity.  This is an almost impossible demand because coal, oil etc can run continuously, regardless of weather, but they take time to get online.  Gas is very quick, hence projects such as turbines at Willington in Derbyshire, but I wonder how many of you know that diesel generators are used at times of high demand..? (and they bellow fumes into the atmosphere as a great rate).  Of course, if we get a fusion reactor working then it’s all simple…

There is huge elephant in the room that many people miss. As a nation, we can be more efficient with our energy, burn less fossil fuels and all pat ourselves on the back.  Well done us..!  Right, shall we see how much carbon Asia (particularly the emerging markets of China and India) are creating..?  Do they worry about the same restrictions..?  You must remember that the start of major emissions into the atmosphere began with the Industrial Revolution in the 1760’s.  Coal was mined to power the steam engines which powered the world. We might use coal less, but we still burn gas and oil.  Asia is going through its own ‘Industrial Revolution’ and the demand for materials is vast.  I’ve seen roads appearing in Africa with my own eyes in the quest for coal and minerals.  There seems no let up in demand to power the worlds consumables.  Just take a look at your camera, computer or telephone.  Where were they made..?  It is here we must strike if we are really to make a global difference.

Bringing the issue back home, the biggest concern in my book is demand. As a nation all we want is more and more. We require it without failure and if we’re not careful, we’ll get caught with our pants down.  When I was a boy, my parents house had one socket outlet per room (we did heat the house with coal however, but sparingly as we didn’t have money to burn).  Now many have eight or ten with multiple adaptors for all those chargers and computers.  Demand has risen incredibly over a very short period of time and here’s the big problem – we all use too much..!  Images of people sitting in winter wearing shorts and a t-shirt prove this point well. If you want to be a little greener, use less, insulate more and save money.

Ok, so I’ve wandered a bit, ranted a bit, got lost on the way perhaps, but this is a subject close to my heart.  So let me leave you with this thought. The next time you switch that air con unit you’ve had fitted in your bedroom, turn up your heating or leave all the lights blazing in your house, just think…

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