Old fossils die hard

19 May 2000

Last December, I lamented what may turn out to have been one of the twentieth century’s flashes in the pan – nuclear power. This month I wipe away a tear for another kind of generation, one that, like nuclear, is innocent of global warming propensities. It has not been a flash in any pan but, also like nuclear, has been hailed in its day as a saviour. It was seen as at once a provider of cheap and environmentally clean power for rural electrification and industrial development, a means to the control of floods and a factor in the supply of water. Now it is reviled by many environmentalists and by certain defenders of human rights.

I refer of course to hydro-electricity, which in Sweden (for example) is considered to be ecologically disastrous and, in that respect, little less reprehensible than nuclear power, though both have served the country well. As poignant an example is the USA. History records times in which the creation of a Tennessee Valley Authority could be greeted as wholly beneficent social engineering in pursuit of the public good. And dams were the temples of modern India, said its founding leader, Jawaharlal Nehru. But those times are past.

There may still be more than 1500 dams a-building in over forty countries but big hydro projects nowadays invite protest rather than admiration. The Three Gorges scheme in China is the greatest hydro enterprise ever, but it has drawn worldwide condemnation for its entailed displacement of over a million people, destruction of wildlife habitats and obliteration of scenic beauty. Dam projects along the Narmada Valley in India have provoked civil unrest and international concern, as has the Ilisu scheme in Turkey.And so on.

Yet there are many communities grateful for the blessings conferred by their hydro works. In Ghana, for instance. There the River Volta was dammed in the 1960s to the detriment of great tracts of savannah and forest, all drowned, but also to the benefit of Ghanaians and others to whom cheap electricity was thus brought.

Sadly, that benefit was rudely curtailed by a naturally inflicted environmental detriment: thanks to the El Niño phenomenon, failing rains halved the electricity supply. The effects were very serious and the government set out to diversify the country’s generating capacity. Power was restored by fossil-fuelled plants but was no longer cheap.

Subsequent heavy rains have lifted water levels and hearts, and more hydro generating capacity is in prospect. However, the Ghanaians will probably take new piped gas supplies from nearby Nigeria to insure them against future droughts.

I feel reasonably certain that fears of possible fossil fuel deprivation are not persuading them to contemplate the further insurance of nuclear power. Nuclear and big hydro are both hate-objects for environmentalists and both deserve a moist eye. Small and mini hydro may be another story: but, judging by the buffeting received by the wind power industry, I am not at all sure. There may be more tears to shed.

Stealth plants could save the scene The oft-alleged ugliness of modern architecture may be all in the eyes of the beholders. Who knows whether, after a suitable lapse of time and a few swings of fashion, today’s deplored forms may or may not emerge respected and perhaps admired? Like Roman aqueducts, mediaeval castles and old Dutch windmills, some or many of them could qualify as picturesque adornments of the environment.

Most power generating plants (including wind turbines) evoke contumely for pollution of sorts, one of them the visual. The plants are so despised that even making them look like other modern bits of architecture has become the aesthetically preferred option. One of the disguises is a set of metallic rings surrounding a 600 MW plant near San Jose, California. This embellishment is intended to make the building look as avant-garde, and therefore as unremarkable, as any other there in Silicon Valley.

Another American attempt at camouflage seeks merger with a more difficult background – the cornfields of Illinois. The design of a 500 MW natural gas plant for erection near Chicago is reportedly scoring high marks for looking just like plans for a barn. Among its subtleties are what appear to be tall grain silos but are really you-know-what to lift out the flue gases. If only a few modern wind turbine generators could be dressed up as old Dutch windmills and built into the assemblage they could help purify part of the power output atmospherically as well as visually.

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