Monday, June 23, 2008

Sustainable energy is more important than renewable

As I'm one of those people (a majority according to a recent poll for the Observer) who remain unconvinced that man is responsible for global warming, I suppose you could be forgiven for thinking that I'm opposed to environmental concerns.

But I'm not. Far from it in fact. I believe wholeheartedly in protecting our environment to the best of our abilities and that includes NOT carpeting our landscape in giant windfarms which, without huge government subsidies, would not be economically viable and are, at best, capable of providing a small boost to our fossil fuelled energy generation capacity.

You see, when the wind doesn't blow - or if it blows too hard - they don't produce anything except noise and a gross affront to the aesthetic value of our landscape. It's a similar thing with solar energy - a great idea, but unfortunately the sun doesn't shine all the time during the day and not at all at night - so again, solar power falls short in being sustainable.

By sustainable I mean two things. One is that energy must be sustainable over the long term - in other words, that we have a source of energy supply for decades ahead. The second is that it must be sustainable in the short term - in other words, must be able to meet the immediate power demands of society. Wind and solar power can not meet the second requirement and never will - so they are not sustainable energy supplies.

Which is why I despair when I read things like this.

Electric cars could play a major role in the shift to environmentally friendly transport, the government will reveal this week. As part of its long-awaited renewable energy strategy, to be published on Thursday, it will argue that there is massive potential in the UK for plug-in hybrids, for car batteries charged on grid electricity and for vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

Now leaving aside the hydrogen fuel cell cars (in my opinion, they ARE the future, but the fact is that it requires a lot of energy to produce hydrogen too) and ignoring hybrids (which are costly to produce and are only affordable at the moment as they are subsidised by profits from conventional cars - as well as being no more energy efficient than a conventional car).

The thing that really annoys me is the idea that a car charged by "grid electricity" is a viable alternative to a conventional car. Let's look at one of the cars this article cites ....

Another trial, run by Mercedes, has distributed all-electric, two-seater Smart cars. The first were delivered to Coventry City Council last December with a view to testing them in urban situations for four years. They can be plugged into the mains and run for 70 miles at up to 60mph on a full charge.

Up to 70 miles at speeds up to 60 mph - and then it has to be recharged. For how long? Three hours? Four hours? Overnight? And this is just a two seater - imagine what that would be for a five seat car with power windows, aircon, CD player and all the other electrical goodies we've gotten used to in recent years! A range of 30 miles and a top whack of 40 - wow, I can just imagine what they'd make of that on Top Gear.

And then it is charged up from the national grid. For goodness sake! The national grid can barely cope with demand as it is. With our increasing reliance on renewable over sustainable energy supply the chances are that a full charge might take a day or two - if you're lucky. Can you imagine what that will mean for a trip to the coast - it could take a week or two to drive from Slough to Cornwall. You'd be better off going by horse and cart.

Go by train? But what if the trains are all electric - they won't run either when there is no juice flowing.

What we need is sustainable energy - energy that is there when we need it - and we need our government to focus less on the idea of renewable and more on the idea of sustainable. Either that or we will have to get used to a Britain more like the early 19th century.

Nuclear is the preferred option for many, but I am still in favour of coal for the short to medium term. Coal is something which we have plenty of, which we can rely on, which we can produce relatively cheaply and which will guarantee that when we need power it will be there. In the long term I believe it makes sense - as an island nation - to use wave power, but the technology isn't there yet. The technology isn't there because our government are too easily swayed by Environazi lobbying and waste our money on wind and solar schemes - the favoured "renewables" - which are inconsistent and unreliable as well as being unsightly and expensive.

And I know a lot of people think that the future is one where we all have our own wind turbine and solar panels to generate our energy needs, but these people are living in fantasy land. For a start it is dubious whether wind and solar would be enough for a UK home and when neither is supplying energy, what then? Take power from the national grid? That would mean having a hugely expensive national grid energy supply purely as backup for when individuals power supply fails.

Then there is the fact we are in the EU - the most regulatory obsessed political body on the planet. How long before every home, every individual, is having to apply a raft of regulations to their personal power stations - from regular government inspections to employing a "safety monitor". All the big power generators would be citing competition law and getting you closed down faster than you can say acquis communautaire.

Personal power generation is a lovely idea, but it isn't going to happen.

We need power for all sorts of things - industry, banking, hospitals, schools, airports, railways - the list is endless. The thinking that we can provide the energy needs of all these things from renewables AND then find some extra to charge our cars so we can drive another 40 miles or so is pure fantasy. We need mains charged electric cars right now like we need an outbreak of TB.


Damon said...


I disagree with a lot of what you say, but can I simply suggest that you look at this (the National Grid's realtime-ish display of power demand):

The grid has to be sized to accommodate the peaks of course, so the bits in between represent unused capacity in the grid that car-charging (or ice-cream-making or whatever) could make good/better use of.

And then of course there's the whole baseload thing, eg Economy 7, which might be another reason *in the current environment* to encourage plug-ins to soak up the power that might otherwise have to simply be run to earth.



Stan said...

Fair point Damon, but the current capacity of the national grid is not the issue - the future capacity is. And it still doesn't help that it's going to take several hours to charge your electric car - assuming you can find somewhere to charge it if you're not at home.