Power to the People

The Edinburgh trip resulted in Mike and I visiting the fabulous Museum of Scotland while Adrian and Noelle went off in search of emergency pants for their daughter. The museum isn’t as glorious as it usually is, with large sections of it closed for work, so what we saw was restricted to the Scottish history exhibit (the Stewart dynasty – ugly and useless monarchs) and the splendid interactive section mainly aimed at younger visitors but splendid for the young at heart.

I spent some time on a simple computer simulation as minster for energy of Lectraland, making decisions about what power plants to build, and which to tear down. I went completely green, and despite urgings from the now returned Adrian to ” go nuclear” simply built wind and tidal turbines, solar and hydroelectic plant. I even tore down one coal-fired power station. The lights stayed on, Lectraland had power, and I did an OK job.

Mike and Adrian both took turns as minister for energy and we all did good jobs according to the sim. Mike went for a complete mix of energy types; Adrian went totally nuclear. I then took another turn, building one nuclear station and staying green for the rest, improving on overall power levels.

The lesson from the sim was clear. Whatever energy strategy you adopt, someone, somewhere will protest about it. If you build wind or marine turbines, the people will complain about them despoiling the landscape or mincing marine wildlife respectively. Go nuclear or conventional, and people will complain about them being built too near to their homes. Go solar and the loss of land area becomes an issue.

Of course, some sites are only suited to particular types of power generation, so protestors about wind power will never usually be faced with a nuclear station being proposed for the same area. This is why small-minded protest groups such as Thwart on the Isle of Wight can afford to object to wind farms, because they know the area will never seriously be considered for something like a nuclear power station. You can imagine the fuss if a nuclear power station were proposed for the Isle of Wight. Thwart prefers to put alternative energy out to sea. Thwart members argue that land-based wind turbines will mince and disturb local wildlife, yet curiously do not then believe that wind turbines at sea will mince seagulls nor that marine turbines will mince sealife. Perhaps it’s because at sea the effects cannot be as easily seen.

Back to the museum, which also had a fun rocket exhibit driven by the gases from hydrolyzed water. You cranked the wheel, creating a current that separated water into hydrogen and oxygen, which were then combined and ignited to fire a model rocket up a wire.

That, and the power sim got me thinking. The biggest issue with alternative energy sources is the fact that they cannot produce energy 24 hours a day all year round. But what if alternative energy sources were used solely to hydrolyze water to form hydrogen and oxygen and the gases stored and compressed also by these energy sources. The erratic nature of alternative energy production becomes less important if it creates a product can be stored.

Hydrogen is the key fuel in current fuel cell technology that creates clean energy for motorised transport. It seems appropriate to use alternative sources of energy to create it.

So what would I do? Build a plant that used solar heat or electricity from alternative energy to distill sea water to remove salt and impurities (if you hydrolyse salt water you produce a rather less desirable gas – chlorine). Sea water is a source of water of which, in general, we are not short (whereas freshwater reservoirs are more required for drinking water). Use alternative energy to hydrolyze that water to produce hydrogen and oxygen, which are stored as useful gases, and use the hydrogen to power fuel cells. Fuel cells generate electricity that can power cars, buses, and potentially even homes. The hydrogen recombines with oxygen in the fuel cell process to produce water. And the salt from the initial distillation process can be used in winter on roads (and if produced to excess is at least a lot safer than nuclear by-products) or returned to the sea, where it is naturally diluted by fresh water from rain or rivers.

The process is not energy efficient. But with the source of energy being sustainable and renewable, this aspects seems rather less important when compared with the ability continually to produce both fuel that can be stored and clean energy.

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