Pity the poor pundits1 September 2005
We should not be too unforgiving
Of course we should not believe everything printed in newspapers – or anywhere else – but (I add with equally insufferable piety) neither should we be too literal or unforgiving in our reading. Last year two publications from the International Energy Agency compared the contributions of different energy sources to electrical power generation. One of the publications,* as reported in The IEA Clean Coal Newsletter, showed a pie chart stating the ‘current’ percentages for renewables, coal, nuclear, gas and oil. The other publication,** as reported in the European Commission’s periodical Euroabstracts, gave corresponding figures for 2001. The percentages were 19 and 15.1 respectively for renewables, 39 and 38.0 for coal, 17 and 24.9 for nuclear, 17 and 16.9 for gas and 8 and 5.1 for oil. What could be the significance of the discrepancies there? You may find that question worth a few moments’ thought.
The Euroabstracts report was titled ‘No quick switch to renewables’. It noted that renewable sources were actually losing market share in some countries. Renewables’ contribution to US electrical generation, for instance, dropped from 24% in 1970 to 15% in 2001. The Newsletter report, on the other hand, stressed “the world's endowment of coal . . . for at least another century": but it acknowledged that ‘many governments have felt it wise’ to limit CO2 emissions, and that the restructuring and liberalisation of many of the world’s largest electrical supply industries have made all projections highly uncertain.
Meanwhile a report titled ‘Sustainable Business’, published by one of my favourite newspapers, the UK-based but international Financial Times, included in a survey of power generation methods an article that began with this ringing and unqualified declaration: ‘If carbon dioxide is the problem, methods of producing energy without carbon must be the solution’.
Elsewhere in the survey the author wrote (endearingly) in another article that ‘Nuclear power . . . has been transformed into the unexpected darling of some sections of the green lobby . . .: nuclear energy offers the hope of producing power on a large scale without burning fossil fuel’.
Perhaps a hard-pressed sub-editor had inadvertently lost a few of the author’s qualifying words in that ringing declaration. And maybe you see why I say that we should not be too literal or unforgiving in our reading. But somebody will probably tell me that I am going soft.
Digital direction delights diggers
The age at which an infant in an industrialised country first asks its parents or guardians why urban walkways and roadways are being dug up has been found to range between roughly five and fifteen months above the age at which the infant’s speech becomes fifty percent intelligible to one of the adults. In their answers, 98.4 % of carers (humorously?) attribute the excavation to search for gold, diamonds, oil, coal or utility connections, in that order of priority.
So I was once informed by a European government official, who later admitted that he had been joking. But, as far as I know, no such admission has been made by the UK authorities that are reportedly mapping, digitally (how else?), the millions of miles and kilometres of underground network that have been ‘lost’ by their electricity-, gas-, water- and telecommunications-conveying proprietors.
These miles and kilometres have been ‘mislaid’ in the sense that their precise route records have strayed, but not in the more literal sense that would cause blame to be put on the original layers of the cables, pipes etc. In the UK some of these conduits and conductors were well and properly buried over a century ago. And they may not have been so much lost to human knowledge, stored as it is on paper, as they have been rendered unavailable compatibly with the digital information technology of more recent installations.
The objective of the new computerised cartographers is not, pace those mineralogically inclined urban childminders, to guide miners, but to make the maintenance of underground utility networks more efficient, more safe and more economic. The risk to life and ledger of blundering (accidentally, of course) into competitors’ cables and so forth should be significantly reduced. Also, perhaps, there should be less traffic congestion as a result of exploratory roadworks, and even some beneficial change in the nature and statistics of infant education, if escorting adults pick up digitally spiced new answers to the youngsters’ inquiries.
*Competitive situation of coal for power generation by Gordon Couch, CCC/84, ISBN 92-9029-399-3, May 2004, £85 in IEA member countries, £255 elsewhere, £42.50 educational.
**Renewable energy: market and policy trends in IEA countries, ISBN 92-64-10791-6, IEA, Paris, 2004, 672pp, EUR 100.