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Letters: Multi-disciplinary engineering approach to energy is needed

Multi-disciplinary engineering approach to energy is needed

The ICE has welcomed the carbon floor price announced in the recent budget. While incentives towards carbon emission reduction are welcome, there are other very important issues to consider.

It appears that the owners of coal-fired power stations are likely to close them down early because they will become uneconomic due to the carbon tax. This is the opposite of what is necessary to maintain security of supply if, as is likely, lower carbon solutions have not been developed to take their place.

The situation as regards electricity generation is very complex and the system for the control of production and use of energy in general and electricity in particular is clearly not capable of dealing with this complexity.

The result is that there is a high risk that in a few years time we will not have sufficient capacity to meet demand, that the cost of electricity will be higher than necessary and that we will not achieve the planned carbon emission reductions.

The Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland (IESIS), a multidisciplinary professional engineering body, believes that a multidisciplinary engineering approach is essential for energy planning.

We are calling for the creation of a national energy commission the membership of which would (a) have the necessary range of high level competence and (b) as far as is practicable, be free from political and commercial constraints.

The commission would be required to take a holistic view of the energy situation and make recommendations to Government.

  • Iain A MacLeod, IESIS vice-president, chairman, IESIS Energy Strategy Group,

How aware are we of the risks of nuclear accidents?

The front cover of NCE’s 24 March edition showed an alarming representation of the danger zones surrounding the Hinkley Point and Oldbury nuclear sites.

The consequences of a major nuclear incident at these sites would be devastating for South East Wales and the Bristol area.

Would the general public, particularly in the Cardiff and Bristol areas, be prepared to accept the consequences of a nuclear disaster at Hinkley or/and Oldbury? Would the public be prepared to accept the assurances of the engineering profession regarding the claimed extremely low probability of the hazard occurring?

With regard to the probability of the hazard occurring, former United States defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know.

But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

While his statement has generated much amusement, it is a valid representation of the limitations of the prediction abilities of the human being.

If put to the test, I suspect the people of Cardiff, Newport and Bristol would vote for the Severn Barrage rather than nuclear power.

  • John Collins (M),

HS2: another question

I remain puzzled by the economic justification for High Speed 2 (HS2).

Never mind the logistics of moving 240,000 people per day on this railway but who are the 240,000 people who can afford a daily trip?

Is it assumed that people will commute to London from Birmingham or beyond on a daily basis? Even if travel on HS2 at a price which will repay the investment is affordable it would be better to spend money on encouraging sustainable travel habits, whether for work or recreation.

Easier travel just encourages more travel and the cost gets passed on in terms of higher salaries which the national economy can ill-afford. Sooner or later the travel growth projections are due for a correction.

  • John Ratsey, 56 Okebourne Park, Swindon, Wiltshire

Valuing the work of engineers

I finished reading NCE last week with a realisation that legislation affecting the industry appears to be a growing and profitable sector at a time when the industry is struggling with reduced workload and skill base.

A simple analysis of the publication of 44 pages identifies three pages offering employment opportunities, seven pages of adverts by specialists and suppliers and 12 pages from one company in a sector selling protection against risk and corruption.

If the value of the employment roles within the sectors were reversed, industry salaries would increase and the skill base could be reduced.

  • Eric R Page (M retired), Dundee,

Think local, not global

I was pleased to see the headline “Small is Beautiful” on the cover of NCE together with your editorial and comment from Mark Elbourne of GE (NCE 31 March).

When I was “doing my civils” in 1983 there was an essay question on Schumacher’s book. It seemed the ICE was supportive of small organisations, appropriate technologies and “Economics as if people mattered”; the book’s sub-title.

It has seemed over the intervening years that our industry is the antithesis of this concept, with large consultants swallowing smaller ones, huge projects feted, and economics as if people didn’t matter.

The energy debate illustrates this perfectly. We had not had much debate before the ICE and industry agreed government plans for super-grids, centralised power generation, massive offshore windfarms etcetera. Energy was also being discussed in the early 1980s.

If every new development since then had been energy efficient and included local or micro-generation we would not now be reliant on unsafe (nuclear) and inappropriate (fossil) energy generation and distribution. The “transition movement” points to alternatives, the emphasis being on local schemes.

Maybe it’s time (as Mark Elbourne suggests) to re-examine Schumacher’s proposals, not just for consultants or energy but for construction generally.

  • Andrew Wood (M), independent consulting engineer (civil, structural and environmental), 21 Victoria Avenue, Haworth, West Yorkshire, BD22 8HP.

Engineers and best value

It used to be said that to believe that growth could continue forever on a finite planet you had to be a fool or an economist. Are civil engineers in danger of joining this benighted fraternity (Comment last week)?

We were warned by the Club of Rome in 1972 that growth would come to an end about now, and the fact that the price of oil is over $120 a barrel suggests that production cannot keep up with even the present relatively constrained level of demand. It does indeed look as though we are at “the end of growth”.

So the role of civil engineers in the future will not be constructing yet more infrastructure, but getting even better value out of reducing resources. No more 250mm thick flat slabs “because concrete is cheap”, but carefully designed and sensitively detailed structures.

It may take a little while before we build another Venice or Florence, but at least we won’t have to build another Milton Keynes.

  • Roger Button (M) 4 Beaufort Place, Larkhall, Bath, BA1 6RP

Taking the lead in flood defences

Professor Richard Ashley comments that government departments appear to show little interest in “joining-up” innovative approaches to delivering the European Union’s Flood Directive (Letters last week).

In contrast, the grant funding bid requirements for many of the Interreg project bids required quite different functions, from different nations, often at different stages of development, all aligned to a common project approach − for example an affordable multi-functional approach to the reduction of urban flood risk.

The Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Act 2009 requires any function, of any public body, to have regard to the reduction of overall flood risk as described in flood risk management plans. It requires responsible authorities to work together, to co-operate and to share information, which is as onerous as the Interreg bid requirements, and on a much larger scale.

Ministers via their departments will “direct” if required, but “joined-up” innovative approaches and their finance are locally devolved matters.

With devolution, the “joining-up” of initiatives and duplication problem is also devolved. In such a devolved context, enhanced/extended Interreg annual conferences similar to the three day “Urban Water” annual conference held by Renfrewshire Council in April 2006, would substantially assist such “joining up” of initiatives, perhaps augmented by any competent authority communication strategy.

Therefore it’s really up to those UK partners involved in current and new Interreg projects to start to take the lead, in respect of knowledge transfer and strategic implementation, as devolution moves forward.

  • Stephen Tingle, Tingle Consulting, 28 Craigbarnet Road, Milngavie, Glasgow G62 7RA

Letters to the editor

NCE welcomes letters from readers.

We attempt to print as many as possible, which means letters longer than 200 words are likely to be condensed.

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