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Letters: Have we stopped preparing for winter?

The main point:

Have we stopped preparing for the heavy snow?

Have we stopped preparing for the heavy snow in the UK?

Regarding the letter entitled ‘Seasoned campaigner’ (NCE 4 February). I very nearly wrote in about this matter last February when I read NCE editor’s Antony Oliver’s editorial (and other letters and articles) on the subject of how the UK should prepare for winters.

Oliver stated (NCE 5 February 2009): “The last few days have seen the kind of extreme weather that we cannot expect to deal with as a matter of course”. I begged to differ at the time.

We had had a succession of mild winters over the previous 10 to 15 years and last February was normal winter weather and I doubt whether this winter’s weather is particularly extreme either. The question is have we stopped preparing for winter?

If we had a succession of dry years should we then start reducing the height of our flood defences? Another statement made at the time was that it was a one in 18 year event because it was the worst winter for 18 years.

That is not how return periods work and to quote from John Gannon’s letter (NCE 4 February): “this careless use of words, which have precise engineering meaning…”

  • Robert Fox (G),

Flying in the face of floods

I take issue with Peter Ackers (Letters last week) and his criticism of NCE reporter Ed Owen’s article the week before about estuarial flooding.

The article reported possible read-across to the Severn Estuary of a paper by Zanten and Adriaanse published in The Netherlands by the Rijkswaterstaat.

This had been picked up on by our own Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), but has obvious importance to civil engineers.

It deals with likely long-term effects of the Oosterschelde barrage that opened in 1987, and can be found in full, in English translation, on the RSPB website.

There is no question that the barrage successfully deals with storm surges such as that in 1953 which killed over 1,800 Netherlanders.

A barrage on the Severn would likewise ameliorate another Somerset Tsunami but this was not the point of the recent Dutch study, which was concerned with the fact that sandbanks are steadily eroded by wave action, which in the Oosterschelde (and perhaps the Severn too) is replaced every tide by sand washed up by the strong tidal current.

Following the introduction of the barrage this current was reduced, and the sandbanks and beaches have become smaller and lower. One effect is that the forward face of local sea defences will become undermined and will need to be maintained at some expense to avoid floods.

Another, dear to the RSPB, is the reduction in feeding grounds for wading birds.

This is a professional study for the Dutch Government, not by any means a “scare story”. Its application to the Severn rather depends on many factors, one of which would be the geometry of any barrage(s) seriously promoted.

  • Christopher May (M) 6, Leewood Road, Weston super Mare BS23 2PB

The solar dream

I must agree with John Beck (NCE 18 February) - why indeed are all new buildings not yet required to have renewable energy generation, eg solar panels, to meet all, or at least most, of the expected demand from future occupants?

This must be much cheaper than retrofitting and easy to monitor compliance.

Unfortunately common sense is far from common, even by many engineers, let alone politicians.

However, the problem of retrofitting remains far larger as most existing buildings will remain in use for many years to come.

The feed-in tariff is an excellent step forward but many people will still be unable to fund the up-front cost of solar panels, even if they save on their electricity bills. What is needed is a mechanism where the up-front capital costs can be financed, possibly by the energy providers, and the costs recovered in a similar manner to the electricity charges.

I believe that many people would be prepared to upgrade to solar power, where their housing was suitable, if this could be achieved. If government set a target of say half a million homes per annum to be so fitted, we could sensibly reduce the urgent need for new power stations to be brought on stream.

This would also generate new businesses and many tens of thousands of jobs. And the individuals, the country, and the planet, would all benefit.

So how can today’s engineers help make this happen?

  • CPK Sherwood (M), 10 Clifton Place, York, YO30 6BJ

Too little too late

It is encouraging to read that there is to be an investment to advance six marine and tidal technologies to commercial demonstrations by 2020 (NCE 4 February). With our generation capacity and electricity demand at less than 5% provided by renewable energy, the £22M funding will be interpreted as too little too late.

Current demand of about 358bn.kWh is provided 70% fossil fuel, 22% nuclear, 4.2% renewable,and 2.8% as imports. However, the demand is forecast to rise to 381bn.kWh by 2020.

To keep the annual cost per household about the same as it is now and to meet the carbon emissions target of 25.6 Mt/year, there has to be less reliance on fossil fuels.

Conversely more reliance will be placed on nuclear, renewable and imports plus strategies to reduce losses through better domestic insulation and business energy management systems.

With significant investment required to upgrade the transmission grid and the inevitable investment for new nuclear capacity, that will take much more than a decade to develop, are we to bear witness to further inadequacies and delay in the nation’s decision making.

Decisions being made now should have been made in the 1990s at the latest.

  • Albert Hamilton (F), former Kent professor of project management,

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