Crying fowl

Whether it is warning systems to prevent aircraft birdstrikes, or engineers seeking inspiration for new wing geometries, our feathered friends provide The Engineer with a constant source of technology projects to report on.

We like to keep up a steady stream of bird stories on The Engineer. Whether it is warning systems to prevent aircraft birdstrikes, or engineers seeking inspiration for new wing geometries, or even miniaturised cameras for wildlife filming and zoology research, our feathered friends provide a constant source of technology projects. The latest to hit the headlines involves the RSPB and windfarms. The society has called for an increase in the number of windfarms to be built, on the basis that the danger that wind turbines pose to bird life is outweighed by the havoc that global warming could play on feeding, migration and breeding habits.

The points put forward by the RSPB are interesting for engineers, as they involve bringing together a variety of technologies, including advanced mapping techniques, to pinpoint the areas where bird life would be most at risk; grid infrastructure, to transport the electricity from the safest locations to dense and dispersed populations; and a system of tariffs to ensure that communities near windfarms have access to cheaper power. Ruth Davies, head of climate change policy at the RSPB, said: ‘If we get it right, the UK can produce huge amounts of clean energy without time-consuming conflicts and harm to wildlife. Get it wrong, and people could reject windpower. That would be disastrous.’

Meanwhile, off the coast of Portugal, another renewable energy technology is in trouble. Persistent technical problems, including leaks, have disabled the Pelamis wave-energy converters in Europe’s first wave farm. The three 140m-long flexing ‘sea-snakes’ have been towed back to shore, and the engineering firm that owns 77 per cent of the wave farm, Babcock and Brown, has gone bust, putting the future of the project in doubt. Pelamis Wave Power, the Edinburgh firm that builds the generators, has signed an agreement to build an even larger converter for E.On, and both companies say the deal will go ahead, but doubts are inevitable.

Both stories are a reminder of the difficulties of generating power from the weather, especially in financially uncertain times. And both are bound to generate more scepticism; the anti-wind lobby will argue that there are just too many constraints on windfarms, for too small a return; wave power sceptics might say that the marine environment is just too hazardous and uncertain for such vital infrastructure. And doubtless many readers will think that our coverage of renewable technologies shows that we have been taken in by some ‘green con’, and that we should devote our attention to clean fossil fuels and nuclear.

The fact is that we don’t endorse one technology over any other, and for a very good reason. We’re only now beginning to understand the perils of relying on only one source of energy for our electricity generation, and it is becoming crystal clear that we cannot carry on like that. Every time the government puts funding in place for one form of generation, critics cry ‘what about the others?’, when inevitably another announcement follows soon after, favouring a different technology.

Many of our opinion pieces call for the funders of technology development to hold their nerve and keep the investment coming, but this is true for the field of electricity generation more than any other. Technologies will fail, especially in the marine sector, yet wave and tidal have the potential not only to generate a significant proportion of UK power, but to provide valuable IP to generate income for British companies — a chance we missed out on when wind technology went to Germany and Denmark. But all the technologies — wave, wind and solar, clean fossil fuels, carbon capture, biofuels and advanced nuclear — require continued funding and development. We’re not going to be able to cope without access to all of them.

All energy questions are going to be hard, because every technology has pros and cons, none of which are trivial. We applaud the RSPB for its realism. Others should follow suit.

Stuart Nathan
Special Projects Editor