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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Weathering the Storm

This weekend I got well and truly stuck. Snowed-in to be specific. Not something that happens often in the UK. Even more freakishly it only took around ten minutes of snow to make three different routes out of the valley I was in unpassable, at least as far as my car was concerned (low-profile tyres and a torque-y diesel engine do not make a happy combination for driving on snow).

It got me thinking about climate change — most immediately how that is a much better name for what is happening than Global Warming. Kudos to the PR team who engineered that one.

Looking at the fairly basic, but very informative BBC Online pages about climate change, you can see that it will probably mean three things for the UK. More flooding, higher average temperatures, and more wind and rain. Given that our architecture isn’t designed for these conditions — as demonstrated by the casualties of last week’s winds — and that there simply isn’t enough space in the UK to move everyone to higher ground, we’re going to need some pretty innovative solutions.

House design could change in some fairly interesting ways. For example, roof structures will need to be redesigned and refurbished so that they are less susceptible to winds and torrential downpours. Thousands of houses in the UK have ageing roofs that wind can easily get under, and water can easily get through. Perhaps the roofing business is a good place to be right now? Especially if you can combine roof reinforcement with photovoltaic panels, which are slowly falling in price.

Flood plains are fairly common in the UK — too common for everyone to just move out of them. So will we see areas of land artificially raised? Or perhaps streets and houses built on stilts/piles that take them above water? If not, it might be time to start shopping for a houseboat, if you live near a river.

Heavy rains are bizarrely difficult for the water companies to capture. The fact that parts of the UK have only just come out of a hosepipe ban, tells us something is going to need to be done about the water infrastructure. Not only must we waste less, we must become more efficient at capturing what does fall in heavy rains.

Power infrastructure too will need to be reinforced. Given the relatively light lashing (by future standards) the UK received, it was disturbing how many people were without power, and for how long.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Back to the BOTF: Energy

Right, back on my favourite hobby horse for another ride: energy.

The BOTF looked at four energy sources: wind, water, solar…and fusion.

The last one still seems very much science fiction rather than fact. For all the successes of the JET programme, and forthcoming ITER, you still have to put in a lot more energy than you get out for fusion to occur. More energy sink than energy source then. (I also seem to remember a problem with the toroidal magnetic fields twisting and lifting tons of equipment off the ground, but I can’t find any evidence of this on the web. Any clues greatly appreciated).

It is the other three sources, and their lack of employment that vexes me.

For example, in the UK we are currently considering a massive building programme for new nuclear power stations to meet our growing energy needs as we try and ween ourselves off coal and shut down the ageing Magnox reactors. Yet we find ourselves falling out (pun intended) with Iran over its desire to build nuclear reactors because of the potential side effects that it supports the creation of nuclear weapons.

Imagine if all the money the British government had poured in to supporting a loss-making nuclear industry had instead been poured in to research into renewable energy. Today instead of negotiating a fine line with Iran over whether they really need nuclear power, and why we are allowed to have it but they aren’t, we could demonstrate that no-one needs it. If Iran really wanted nuclear weapons rather than energy, its government would have to say so explicitly.

Simplistic? Maybe, but given the amount of progress the renewable energy industry has made with just tiny levels of investment, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect much greater advances with significantly more investment.

Wind power particularly has made great strides. Small turbines are now available in B+Q (although not with my suggested packaging of the government grant), which brings us back to the theme of my last post: self-sufficiency. If householders all start putting up wind turbines of our own accord we will reduce our reliance on the energy companies. They might take notice and finally start to invest a bit more heavily in technologies that will reduce our reliance on oil and dirty, expensive, nuclear fission.

Then we might be on a slightly better footing when we start telling other countries that they’re not allowed nuclear power because it’s dangerous.

Tom Cheesewright