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Why wind power when water’s better?

Friday 10 December 2010

Two weeks of freezing hell may have some long term benefit for the countryside, suggests our commentator John Sheard, as official minds turn at last to rural England’s best hope for “green” electricity: water power

FOR the best part of the past fortnight, I have gazed out of the window from my attic study at the pillar across the valley. It has remained as still and solid as Lot’s wife when she was turned into salt at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

Yet this was/is a pillar of smoke, presumably from a home with a wood burning stove or Aga, and they must be early risers to have it going so well just as dawn breaks. To me, it is a useful indicator of the sort of day we are likely to have, a bit like a windsock at an aerodrome.

Grassington weir: wasted energy

There is, however, a much more significant portent in this stationary column of gaseous matter. For in the coldest early winter weather since 1965 – it reached –18C in parts of North Yorkshire this week – there was absolutely no wind at all for whole days and nights in a row.

And yet this Coalition Government of ours is still hell-bent on taking over New Labour’s obsession with wind power and hopes to raise something like 20% of the nation’s energy needs from windfarms – a plan which is as diaphanous as the wood smoke in my column across the dale.

At the same time, politicians and Whitehall-bound civil servants have largely ignored the power which, along with horse muscle and sail, laid the foundations of the British Empire long before the steam engine was even invented: water power!

Of course, Britain has changed beyond measure since those days in the 17th and 18th Centuries when watermills powered the nascent Industrial Revolution. The population of London is now roughly equal to that of the whole nation then and big cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford and Leeds were largish villages by today’s standards.

I am not suggesting that water power could supply the huge energy needs of such mega conurbations but, thankfully, this new Government has had the sense to give the go ahead for a new range of atomic power stations – ten years too late, of course, and the Lib-Dems could still cock that up.

But few people who visit my part of the Yorkshire Dales as an escape from the big cities realise that these valleys were once a hive of what then passed for heavy industry: tin and lead mining, quarrying, lime burning for fertiliser and – yes – a burgeoning textile trade.

Dales rivers like the upper reaches of the Wharfe, Aire and Ribble were lined with water mills where the water drove machinery to grind corn or spin and weave wool and cotton. When the canals came along in the mid 18th Century, their barges took these products to the ports where sailing ships took them to the four corners of the earth.

At the time, electricity was still a conjurer’s trick producing sparks and arcs between copper balls but few realised it would become the driving force of world civilisation – and its manufacture the major producer of pollution.

But it did not stop there. When electricity did arrive to produce today’s world, residents of the picture-postcard Dales villages of Grassington and Threshfield cashed in by building a weir across the River Wharfe which provided them with hydro-electricity until World War II.

could generate as much electricity as nuclear power stations...

The weir is till there, subject of thousands of visitor snapshots, but essentially useless. And that, I fear in these straitened times, is a deplorable waste of Mother Nature’s bounty which could light up wonderful Grassington at very little cost and on different rivers throughout Britain, do the same for thousands of country towns and villages. With zero carbon emissions!

Why this once universal source of cheap power has been ignored for so long I cannot imagine except, perhaps, that all British policy has been decided in London by Londoners or adopted ones for at least the past 60 years.

There aren’t many streams and rivers to damn in the Whitehall/Westminster village (although my old hangout, Fleet Street, still has the River Fleet running under it). So if it’s not good for London, why should we country bumpkins benefit?

However, things are bubbling in the water works. The new Climate Change Minister Greg Barker has just admitted that rivers and streams are “a great untapped source of power” and “could generate as much electricity as nuclear power stations.”

Why such an important matter is in the hands of such a trendy, please the Lib-Dems and chattering classes Ministry I again have no idea: it should be with ministers of some clout in trade and industry. Those original water mills were built by private entrepreneurs with their own capital but, sadly, we don’t have people of that calibre in Government these days.

But perhaps we don’t need them because now we have the technology to harness that power with tiny, screw-driven mini power stations and we don’t even have to dam the river: these things can be fitted under the bank, with feeder streams in and out so as to be virtually invisible. They can also help improve the water flow which in turn could help fish life despite the objections of some angling groups.

They say that people who don’t understand history go on to repeat history’s mistakes. Windmills were never a major source of power in England except perhaps in East Anglia whereas water power did much to build the nation Streams and rivers might run low, but they dry up completely very rarely (never in most cases) and it takes very little water to run a modern turbine.

So why go on pumping fortunes into the pockets of foreign wind turbine manufacturers (the last one in Britain, on the Isle of Wight, closed this year)? Why go on paying huge subsidies to wind farmers when the wind doesn’t blow? Why disfigure our precious landscapes with hideous turbines? The lessons of history are plain to see - for anyone who cares to look!

Feedback received on this subject:

I'm struck by one thing above all. The absence of numbers in this article.

David Mckay, the Chief Scientific Advisor to DECC, and author of "Sustainable Energy - Without Hot Air" suggests one simple discipline for those suggesting energy plans; that they declare in terms of kilowatt-hours/day per person these schemes can contribute, then compare that to the 127kwh/day that we Brits on average use.

I'm no fan of wind energy. It's intermittent, expensive, and intrusive. But, to suggest that low-head hydro has a serious contribution to make is basically engineering-illiterate. Mckay considers it - and notes that the maximum credible potential is of the order of 5KWh/day per head.

Do a simple sum - "MgH" 9mass in kg, height, and gravity tell you the potential energy available in these various water courses. Before you even worry about conversion efficiency - which is poor for low-head systems - it'll give you an answer.

But you won't like it.

Andy Dawson Crowthorne, Berks

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