Bet on renewables, but wisely1 March 2007
Flurries of enthusiasm about renewable energy have been stirring the speculations of some of my fellow scribblers who write for the business and financial papers. These commentators, unlike me, are pundits who deal with the realities of life (commerce, stocks, shares and so forth) rather than the strange schemes and grubby manipulations of technical folk. Such pundits’ comments plainly rate much more careful attention than an engineer’s can, and so they should, particularly when they are made to help guide their readers to the best investments. You and I may well be glad that these commentators’ current flurries of enthusiasm take in the renewable-energy-related part of our industry.
According to one of the most reputable international business newspapers the economics of renewable energy have been changed by energy’s high prices generally and, more particularly, by the European Union’s institution of ‘carbon trading’ (see last December’s column), which has put an extra cost on fossil-fuelled power generation.
The lengthy and wide-ranging review containing this opinion showed that the writers included in their catalogue of ‘renewable energy technologies’ for electricity supply at least wind turbine generation, ethanol and other biofuel firing for power stations, ocean wave and tidal energy conversion, and fuel cells running on either hydrogen or ethanol. Wind power and ethanol were last year’s best bets for investors in this burgeoning market, the reader of the review was assured, and wind was the most mature of all the renewable technologies. There was no mention of hydro.
Does that omission startle you, as it did me? Remember that it was not made by tabloid sensation-seekers but by professional financial journalists who must have researched their subject matter to some depth. Would it be wrong to take seriously their failure to recognise hydro’s technology as much more mature than wind power’s? Does their oversight legitimately reduce the reliance one places on their judgement of the commercial prospects? Must one be less glad about their enthusiasm?
A doomier flight of fancy
British Energy, the generating company that runs (among other things) the UK’s geriatric carbon-dioxide(!)-cooled commercial nuclear power stations, is reported to have objected to the construction of a wind farm neighbouring the company’s Hinkley Point plant. According to one press report that has come my way, the company persuaded the planning authorities that the strong local winds would snap off a turbine blade in such a way that the fragment’s trajectory would carry it ‘over one nuclear power station and straight into another’ 900m away.
The newspaper did not go into details of the damage that could be done by such a seven-tonne chunk of rotor. This was left to the reader’s imagination – at a time when anti-nuclear voices were warning of the consequences that might follow a terrorist missile attack on any of the new nuclear power stations that were being advocated by the UK prime minister.
Is my own imagination too fevered when I wonder whether some people could suppose that terrorists might eschew the firing of conventional projectiles and use wind turbine generators to launch snap-off rotor blades at establishments just waiting to go off like atomic bombs?
Did it occur to British Energy that its objection to a wind farm project might prompt such fancies?
Particulates confuse the issue
Astonishingly, some people are innocent enough of science to take literally the term ‘carbon’ when used in ‘global warming’ contexts as an abbreviation for ‘carbon dioxide’. You will no doubt have read or heard your own examples of this but I hope that you will share my wry amusement at a specimen that you may not have come across.
An economist of repute wrote in the weekly UK newspaper, The Observer, to praise a new British government report† on global warming by the greenhouse effect, and on what should be done about it. The report’s originality, he declared, lay in its connection of ‘the economics of uncertainty and risk to the global economic impact of climate change’.
A particular uncertainty was described by the writer as having been the US president’s excuse for doing nothing about global warming: George W Bush had argued that action before ‘the facts became clear’ could damage the American economy. ‘Nobody can be certain’, elaborated the British pundit, ‘about the exact trajectory of the growth of carbon particles in the atmosphere or their relationship with global warming’.