Thursday, 19 March 2009

The future's bright - but largely ignored

Britain is to have a new power station. It is claimed to be cleaner, more efficient, and, wait for it, will be coal fired. Yes, you heard – coal fired.

Like me, did you just check your calendar to see whether it really is 2009? That would be 2009 in the 21st century when we are all well aware of the
adverse effects of burning coal (greenhouse, gases, acid rain, the impact on the land, and much more besides). Plus we are doing all this in the full knowledge that coal is not a renewable energy source. It is the sort of decision that might have been excusable in the 60’s or 70’s, but surely not today.

So what’s the alternative?

There are
renewable energy sources - wind, solar, tidal and water. These are clean, with relatively little impact on the environment, but will never produce the majority of our power.

Then there are nuclear energy sources – nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. Fission is in use today, with the main disadvantage of the extraordinary long time that the waste remains radioactive.

Nuclear fusion is not yet in production, but it has so many advantages you wonder why. It is clean, produces no greenhouse gases, with either no or little radioactive waste, and is safe. And it can produce electricity in the amounts we need to support an increasingly power-hungry world.

Generating power using fusion would answer most of the problems we currently have with energy production. That’s a pretty big thing for future generations, but it is largely not debated and not sufficiently funded. The reason? We are still some years away from a working fusion power plant and it doesn’t have the easy-sell that renewables have.

More research is needed to harness the power that we know can be created through fusing atoms together. We have some of the best scientific brains in Europe working on it, but they are hampered by lack of political will and lack of funding. More money is spent on ringtones in the UK than is spent on developing fusion. That says something about our priorities.

So what’s the link to metrics, and performance management? You guessed it – targets: government and EU targets. We have an EU mandated target to achieve 15% of our energy from marine renawables by 2020. Laudable in itself, but it means that the long term and the very significant benefits of
fusion are left off the agenda. That can’t be right.

Is it another case of measuring what’s easy, and palatable, whilst omitting the more challenging measures? In this world of 30-second sound bites and our obsession with celebrities, we risk neglecting what’s really important. Are we avoiding the decisions, and targets, that will make this planet a habitable place for our children’s children?

3 comments:

  1. Civilization runs on energy. No energy no civilization. So right now you have a choice. Choose civilization. It is a more pleasant way to live.

    However it would be good to prepare for the next stage. Here is a fusion project that will give us a yes/no answer in 5 years for a cost of $200 million:

    Bussard's IEC Fusion Technology (Polywell Fusion) Explained

    Why hasn't Polywell Fusion been fully funded by the Obama administration?

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  2. It’s a good question and I’d love to know the answer. The 2009 US funding for fusion is nowhere near the amount you mention. Anyone from the Obama administration care to comment?

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  3. I think the BBC must be reading your Blog as today they have picked up on the topic
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7972865.stm
    Apparently ..... "Fusion is looked on as the "holy grail" of energy sources because of its potential to supply almost limitless clean energy." :)

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