Tuesday, 21 October 2014
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Variety is key in a fast changing landscape

Starting publication in 1851 means that The Engineer has covered all the major developments in the energy technology landscape. We featured Michael Faraday’s obituary; the ‘current wars’ between Edison and Westinghouse; the invention of the turbine generator; the electrification of the country; North Sea oil; and the UK’s pioneering role in nuclear power. And with that perspective, it seems that we are now in the middle of one of the greatest transformations in the way we generate and use electricity for the past century and a half.

We are now developing and deploying more methods for generating electricity than ever before; and we’ve come around to the idea that more is better: the more diverse our raft of techniques for forcing electrons through a cable, the more likely we are to keep our lights burning. But we’re also still trying to come to terms with our legacy — Sellafield is testament to our longer history in nuclear power than most countries, with its stockpiles of nuclear waste and plutonium, reprocessed from spent fuel over the years.

In this supplement, we highlight some of the latest developments in energy technologies which will affect the UK over the next decade or so. GE, one of the earliest players in the electricity generation industry, is hoping to help the UK deal with its plutonium stockpile by building PRISM reactors, small units which are the descendants of Britain’s now-defunct breeder reactors at Dounreay, which are capable of consuming plutonium and transforming it into shorter-lived radioactive substances — although it’s far from clear whether they will be built and, if they are, how they will be used. We also take a look at the past and the present of Dounreay.

Britain’s fickle weather might seem to make it an unlikely place for solar energy to flourish, but as Jon Excell explains, we’re in the middle of a solar boom, with photovoltaic farms contributing to a total of 2.5GW of generating capacity; and despite subsidies reducing year-on-year, PV operators are still finding that they are profitable.

Meanwhile, we take a look at how energy use in cities is being monitored and reduced by networks of sensors deployed in ‘Smart Cities’, controlling systems such as street lighting, rubbish collection and even park watering. Also deployed to keep an eye on air quality, such networks are also helping to improve quality of life by controlling traffic flows at peak times.

Michael Faraday, whose lectures were so popular that they created their own traffic management issue and led to the first traffic lights in London, would doubtless be amazed at where his discovery of magnetic induction had led us. Hopefully, he’d approve.


Readers' comments (2)

  • It's costing £80 million a year to store, maintain and guard the plutonium stockpile. GE Hitachi are offering payments by results - no massive risky capital outlay for taxpayers. When does a political decision become a no-brainer? It's a vote winner - a painless way towards our inconsequential, but very expensive, carbon targets - what is the government waiting for?

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  • The so-called "solar boom" only exists because of massive subsidies. Without subsidies, the technology would only be used for isolated areas.
    Solar power generates most electricity when it is not needed and none when it is needed.
    On top of that, the highest subsidies are paid to household solar cells on roofs that, very often, point in the wrong direction. So they put most money into the least efficient and most expensive version of the technology. This is seriously crazy.
    As we now know that man-made carbon dioxide does not cause dangerous global warming, (because the world has not warmed for the last 17 years) the whole policy of subsidising renewable energy is a serious waste of money and effort.
    End it now before it does even more economic damage!

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  • While surface air temperatures haven't been as high as originally predicted in the last 17 years, sea temperatures have continued to rise, the ice caps have continued to shrink and nine of the hottest ten years on record have been in the last decade.

    Subsidies for renewable energy technologies are massively dwarfed by those for fossil fuels and nuclear, both today and historically.

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