Posts Tagged ‘Question Time’
For those not familiar with British television, Question Time is a weekly show on the BBC that allows members of a self-selected audience (i.e. you have to ask to be in it) to pose questions on current events to a 5-person panel of politicians and celebrities.
Last Thursday’s panel included the verbally-incontinent former deputy Prime Minister (Lord) John Prescott, the (unusually angry-sounding) comedian Griff Rhys Jones, and the UK’s Green Party leader Caroline Lucas MP. Therefore, given that the audience knows who the panelists are going to be in advance, I guess that a question about energy policy was almost inevitable. It came about two-thirds of the way through the hour-long programme. The programme is viewable in the UK on the BBC’s iPlayer but, it has been posted on You Tube in four parts. The very prejudicial question on energy policy (i.e. in effect it was: “Wind power has failed us but can nuclear do any better?”) is posed at 06:40 in Part 3 of 4 on You Tube:
David Willetts, government minister for Universities, was asked to respond first and – as did Prescott – emphasised the need for a good mix of energy sources. Lucas interrupted him to make a number of points including that nuclear is uneconomic and subsidised(?); that we still don’t have a solution for the waste, and suggested that we do not need nuclear power to solve our energy problems. A number of her more questionable assertions went unchallenged; as indeed did those of others (e.g. Lucas did not challenge the sensibility of carbon capture and storage [CCS]), but one that did get challenged – big time – was the assertion that we can do without nuclear. Lucas also made the fundamental point that we must reduce demand for energy by pursuing efficiency, but she failed to challenge the tired old argument that wind is unreliable (and it was left to someone in the audience to make the point that tidal power is always available).
However, it was the contribution of Rhys-Jones that I found most astonishing (11:45 to 14:25 in the above video): Rhys-Jones’ anger vented in the direction of wind turbines was astonishing (especially given some other very sensible anger he vented in the direction of the selfish bankers who caused the financial meltdown of 2008 earlier in the programme). Amongst other things:
– He insisted that he is not a climate change sceptic (just “a solution sceptic”).
– He mocked the UK’s attempts to reduce its own emissions as futile tokenism.
– He ridiculed the suggestion that we could meet our energy needs by renewables alone.
– He lamented 20 years of non-decision making (as I do) because he is pro-nuclear (as I am).
However, his most contentious remark was to claim that to replace the output of a single nuclear power station would require 300 square miles of wind turbines “standing shoulder to shoulder”. I was so sure this was nonsense but not sure where to start to rebut it, so I emailed a few friends to help me. Their responses were varied (some pro-wind, some pro-nuclear) but, despite being a pragmatist (i.e. in favour of both), I was determined to get to prove Rhys-Jones wrong; and believe I can now do so:
There is a problem, however, which is Rhys-Jones’ use of the phrase “standing shoulder to shoulder”. This conjures up images of early wind farms in California where the turbines were placed in tightly-packed arrays. It was soon discovered that turbulence reduced the wind speed passing turbines sited in the wake of others. I could do the maths based on such flawed design but it would be pointless. It would be much better to do the maths on lower density arrays, as would be built today, and determine how much space is required to generate the output of a 1 GW nuclear power station…
With the benefit of decades of experience and modelling using wind tunnels and computers, a typical array built today has a triangular matrix composed of rows of wind turbines with a spacing of 4D by 8D, where D is the turbine diameter (i.e. 4D = distance between rows; 8D = distance between turbines in a row). With a turbine diameter of 60m, 4D = 240m, and 8D = 480m, which yields a turbine density of 12 per square kilometer (or 31 per square mile). If 1 turbine has an output of 1MW, then 1 square mile could yield 32MW; 100 square miles could yield 3.2GW; and 300 square miles 9.6GW. Thus, even adopting a modern definition of “shoulder to shoulder” Rhys-Jones appears to be out by a factor of almost 10 (i.e. a 1GW nuclear power station is equivalent to just over 30 square miles of wind turbines).
However, all of this is somewhat academic because I do not think anyone would want to see our countryside blanketed in wind farms; nor is anyone actually proposing that we should do so (this is just the nightmare scenario peddled by those who don’t like wind turbines). On the contrary, there is no need for us to do this. We have numerous other existing renewable technologies; what we need to do is invest in all of them simultaneously (believe me – I have tried it on the DECC Pathways 2050 tool). Such investment would include the following:
– Investment in new solar farms that can generate electricity even when it is cloudy; and then store it and discharge it at night.
– Investment in tidal stream systems that can generate electricity all the time.
Beyond that, as Lucas pointed out, the solution lies in reducing demand; and/or getting as many people as possible off the power grid altogether. This is why the government should be promoting the installation of Solar PV systems on the roof of every single suitable property (especially public buildings); and legislating to ensure all new buildings are as energy and water efficient as possible (because treating water to make it drinkable takes a lot of energy).
Going back to the Question Time programme, the biggest cheer came when a member of the audience raised the spectre of energy from waste (EfW) – a local waste incinerator was clearly a very contentious proposal. This suggests that most objections to alternative energy systems boil down to “Not In My Back Yard” protests (i.e. small-minded NIMBYism). For the record, I would much rather live next to a modern waste incinerator than an old unlined landfill. Compared to historic waste disposal, EfW is not only a sustainable solution – it is also cleaner. I therefore think that people will just have to get used to EfW because we must maximise recycling; and re-use whatever we can to generate energy. Burying waste in the ground must be the last resort for the residual waste that cannot be put to any other use.
People do seriously need to get over NIMBYism; and start thinking about the quality of the environment they wish to bequeath to their children; and herein lies the problem: Most people do not realise the nature, scale, and urgency of our need to decarbonise our energy generation systems. I suspect that our governments do but, as last week’s draft Energy Bill demonstrates, they are either lying to us and themselves; or they are pinning all their hopes on CCS. In fact, as James Hansen suggests in Storms of my Grandchildren, they are doing both:
Hansen says we should FART* (16 November 2011); and
What’s wrong with clean coal? (21 November 2011).
* FART = Fundamentally alter resource trajectories (i.e. my acronym not his).