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Intermittent Renewables

We have the opportunity to look, long term, both at our energy use and at its generation. Fossil fuels are a finite resource and we have extracted them at a rate many, many magnitudes greater than the geological periods during which they were established. The result of this is that we have returned a great deal of the carbon that was geologically locked away, back into the atmosphere.

The abundance of solar radiation and of gravitational energy suggests that we should commit to these, for everything else is as finite as fossil fuels. Uranium and thorium are finite so dependence on them simply leaves yet another bill to be paid by later generations. First we need to cut away the energy waste which is costing our society dear, then we need to work towards replacing short term energy sources with those that can supply us as long as mankind is likely to inhabit this planet.

Renewables are all intermittent, to some extent, but that is resolvable by networking across each continent and by storage. The wind is always blowing somewhere and the sun is shining, tides never stop and wave energy is there to be captured, too. High voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines are already being constructed, elsewhere in the world. They do not suffer the losses of alternating current (AC) transmission and they can be matched with the new generation of electrical storage so that we overcome periods of low wind or sunlight. Dr Gregor Czisch, of Kassel University, who has researched HVDC/renewable generation across Europe has observed that in Europe there already exists sufficient hydro storage for a month's electricity supply. Now, a German consortium is looking at investing in Desertec, solar concentration in North Africa where sunlight is dependable.

We have technologies that would permit total renewable generation within a few decades but for ignorance and the lobbies that see their particular golden egg laying geese being cooked for Christmas dinner.

The real problem lies in the build defects. Nuclear generation is unforgiving in a way that is unlike any other form of generation. Mistakes in nuclear have the potential for catastrophic failure. It doesn't really matter about all those fine safety promises because, somewhere down the line, there will be human beings taking less care than they should or trying to see if they can improve output. Maybe it's just a weld that was done on Friday afternoon. The failure, this week, at a Russian hydroelectric installation, was devastating but the damage was limited. Even if the dam had burst and water had flooded whole cities, when the water level had dropped those cities could be rebuilt. Not the story at Chernobyl!

Dr Mark Barratt, Principal Research Fellow at UCL has modelled UK energy needs and agrees with Czisch, we need a declining fossil fuel backup to cover for windless days but only until we have constructed a pan European grid. Czisch estimates that the entire grid/renewables system could be built in two decades and at a generating cost similar to that which we now pay.

So, why opt for a non renewable generating process that habitually runs over budget and over time, that produces by-products that totally inimical to life, that extend our ability to construct weapons of mass destruction and where a small human error could mean catastrophic deaths?