David Ward laments that he can’t see a credible programme to produce energy for our high speed rail programme and other growth activity (New Civil Engineer May 2016). The Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ (IMechE’s) Engineering the UK Electricity Gap report from January 2016 agrees.
On a recent visit to Severn Beach on the Severn Estuary I passed a solar wind farm, a wind turbine array and an energy from waste facility. I stood and read an information board on the shore which proudly told the reader of the extraordinary tidal range of the Severn Estuary. Along the coast the debacle of Hinkley Point nuclear generation facility is unfolding, or unravelling maybe.
My reading of the IMechE report is that our energy policy appears to be at best in limbo and that only a huge fast track programme of combined cycle gas turbine plants would seem to be the answer to our energy security.
How incredible is all of this when the imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is now so acute when the British Isles has an abundance of sources of low-carbon energy from wind, tides, and rainfall? As recently as five years ago I felt confident that our government had a sound energy policy based on new nuclear power stations and a variety of renewable energy programmes. But with new nuclear in trouble due to endlessly escalating costs and continuing uncertainty about waste disposal, and with seemingly economically viable schemes using tidal power deemed to have unacceptable environmental impact, where are we now headed?
I suspect that the time has come to take a radical refreshed view of how to sustain the lives and livelihoods of our 60M going on 70M citizens on this group of small islands. We already transformed the landscape from a wilderness into a well-tended garden so why attempt to maintain the garden exactly how it is?
- Michael Norton (F) email@example.com
Crack down on the frackers
We cannot claim to be serious in our intent to tackle climate change if we do not collectively express dismay at the decision by North Yorkshire County Council to allow fracking in Rydale.
While other authorities in the world ban unconventional gas extraction (including in parts of Texas, New York state, France, Wales and Scotland), England presses on and Yorkshire has the first approval for hydraulic fracturing in five years since earth tremors stopped exploration in Lancashire.
It has not been proved that fracking is safe or necessary and deeply buried methane must surely be the very last fossil fuel that we consider exploiting.
Methane is a far more significant greenhouse gas than CO2 and fugitive methane is now a known phenomenon in fracking in the United States and Australia.
The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering 2012 report on hydraulic fracturing is now four years out of date and worldwide experience has much to add.
The many caveats contained in that report have not been met and if anything, the industry has been allowed a much easier passage, with planning and environmental restrictions eased.
With feed-in tariffs on renewable energy scrapped and tax breaks for unconventional gas extraction it is clear that climate change is not high on this government’s agenda. As civil engineers, we have a duty to ensure that it is high on ours.
- Andrew Wood (M) 21 Victoria Avenue, Haworth, West Yorkshire BD22 8HP
Tackling water scarcity
Congratulations on your “Where’s the water” feature (New Civil Engineer May 2016). Especially interesting is the research by University of Twente showing that 4bn people “…live with water scarcity for at least one month every year”.
While “living with water scarcity” is a vague phrase, at least there is recognition that water resources are dominated by seasonality. Nature commonly gives us water in the wet season but little or none in the dry season, making dry-season supply heavily dependent on storage even in normal years; and even more so in time of drought. And yet, at global level, all our major storage facilities are under some kind of threat.
Aquifers around the world are being unsustainably mined. What happens when they empty? Melting glaciers give a short-term bonus to downstream users. But what happens as they recede? Seasonal snowmelt is threatened in both extent and timing by global warming. And while reservoirs are arguably more reliable, even they are vulnerable to siltation and pollution. And that’s before you recognise that evapotranspiration will be even bigger in a warmer world.
Of course timescales are case-specific and will vary greatly. But at global level it looks as if the needs are going to increase while the storage to meet them diminishes. There are problems enough already. So just where is the dry-season water going to come from to grow enough food in the decades ahead?
- David Evans (M), firstname.lastname@example.org
Lane rental for Utilities
Your roads analysis (New Civil Engineer last month) ignores the basic funding problem. Councils are at the sharp end of government curbs on public spending and at the same time unable to reduce their core spend on education and social care. That’s why all discretionary elements such as libraries are disappearing and why road maintenance becomes a series of short term fixes. Small amounts of additional ad-hoc government funding are political window dressing, and facile calls for use of the small amounts left in reserves ignores the reason councils hold reserves in a period of financial and physical uncertainty.
There are considerable financial resources available in the local road network. Utility companies, their contractors and sub-contractors pay healthy shareholder dividends based in part on their free use of the network for their plant. Their works create structural weaknesses and reduce carriageway life and contain alarmingly large amounts of poor standard works as successive surveys show. Current legislation dates from an era when utilities were public bodies and supervisors of their own works.
The financial climate is here to stay. The introduction of standardised rentals for use of the roads would produce a secure income stream and might even encourage companies to seek wayleaves elsewhere and reduce the disruption from works.
- Andrew Holmes (M retd) Strathtummel, Lower Oakfield, Pitlochry
Pothole funding gap
Having been subjected to double pothole damage recently where both front and rear reinforced run flat tyres were damaged, I read with interest Greg Pitcher’s piece on “Potholes - Fix the Cause not the Symptom” (New Civil Engineer June 2016).
While I fully appreciate the viscious circle local authorities are stuck in, I ask myself why the government doesn’t ring fence road tax completely (surprise, surprise, wishful thinking) and use that budget to actually repair the sub-base properly.
Maybe some of my ICE colleagues who work as civil servants can enlighten me.
- Stuart Haigh (M) email@example.com
CDM and small projects
Regarding the extension of the CDM regulations to small projects: is data available for the number of accidents in this sector? Will accident numbers fall? Or might the cost of regulation allow unscrupulous contractors to win work, leading to a rise in accidents? Does the Health & Safety Executive have the capacity to enforce the extension of the regulations?
- Bill Geary (M) 2/6 Warriston Road, Edinburgh EH3 5LG