Scotland is famed for its engineers. From James Watt to Scottie on the Starship Enterprise, fretting over his dilithium crystals, we have a long and distinguished tradition. So how are they approaching the challenges of sustainable power generation in their own back yard? A recent annual lecture by the Institute of Engineering addressed theses challenges. The speaker succinctly outlined the possibilities and potentials for renewable energy exploitation in and around our hills and coastline. In terms of wave, wind and tidal stream Scotland is the Saudi Arabia of zero carbon power generation. One estimate for wave and tidal stream alone, predicted that over 206 GigaWatts could be produced in our sea lochs and islands. This is an impressive figure given that that the current UK average demand is circa 40 GigaWatts with a 60 GW winter peak.
Unlike wind power, tidal stream is entirely predictable and therefore does not require ‘understudy’ power capacity. Lowering these devices below the wave turbulence makes storm damage less likely. If a proper level of investment in R&D is forthcoming (say about 5% of the subsidy enjoyed over the last 60 years by the nuclear industry), Scotland can punch well above its weight. When combined with reduced demand (e.g. insulating our energy profligate building stock, building new ‘eco’ dwellings and switching all lamps to the new generation of LEDs), we surely have a big part of the answer to achieve the set carbon reduction targets.
What surprised me were the questions posed by these expert engineers. The audience ignored the lecture content and proceeded to discuss – at some length – the possibilities for carbon capture; a technique currently being developed to grab some of the CO2 from traditional power stations and bury it in rock beds recently vacated by oil. Partial carbon capture will be a planning condition if the new coal fired power station muted for Hunterston is ever to achieve consent. Why the ‘Saudi Arabia’ of renewables should be considering building such a power station – reportedly to be fired by imported Columbian coal brought across the ocean in tankers burning bunker oil – is of course, the more pertinent question.
That is not to say that geo-engineering techniques should be ignored. After all, it is 250 years of geo-engineering that has caused the problem in the first place. Whether it is carbon capture, global dimming by injecting measured quantities of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere or mid-ocean cloud generation by churning the surface, all may have to be tried to buy humanity a bit of breathing space.
If the environmental sceptics eventually turn out to be correct, the eco lobby will have wasted some valuable time and resources. If, however, they are wrong, and global warming continues at its current rate, we will flip – given the likelihood of a mutually reinforcing feedback loop releasing the methane locked in our ocean sediments and tundra – to a entirely new ecosystem that will, at the soft end, see famine, mass migration and global conflict; at the hard end, the inability of humans to survive in significant numbers. The stakes could not be higher, but changing human behaviour and attitudes is proving exceptionally difficult.
If this audience of Scottish engineers is a barometer of public attitudes, we are in real trouble. These engineers sought a precise answer to the wrong question. For them, this appeared to be a much more satisfying outcome than an imprecise answer to the right question.