See what you fancy in business bubbles and crystal balls

1 November 2008

Oil consumption can be hugely increased for a few decades

The world’s financial convulsions have been defying us to make sense of them. The latest weapons of mass destruction have been revealed to be not atomic but economic (inflicting something called a credit crunch). The turmoil of markets has seemed to be characterised at times by bubble-like price inflations for petroleum (and therefore fuel-price-sensitive goods). One of the more interesting observations that I encountered during one such phase was made by an economist in an international business newspaper. The writer was Lord Desai,* emeritus professor of economics at the London School of Economics, UK, and he was reviewing the petroleum bubble problem in The Financial Times.

He saw the bubble expanding with increasing rapidity as ‘investors’ gambled with growing eagerness on continuation of the expansion. Traders were signing contracts for sales and purchases at $138 a barrel in 2016. ‘Only astrologers’, wrote the professor, ‘pretend that they can forecast that far ahead’.

But many of us know too well that, in matters of energy and economics, for a very long time, astonishing numbers of people have pretended they can forecast that far ahead, and indeed much farther. And not a few of these prophets have occupied high places and/or exerted strong influence.

Lord Desai’s remark (which was surely uttered with somewhat sardonic intent) was still echoing in my mind when, only a day or two later, the same newspaper was telling its readers of yet another authoritative forecast, this time from the International Energy Agency. That august body was apparently looking forward to a world well enough stocked with ‘oil’ resources for the latter’s consumption to be hugely increased over the next few decades.

Restraint would be necessary, however. This was conceded, but not to rein in demand for a declining resource as we thought last century and before. The threats seen in our time were raised by combustion product emissions.

Our own industry’s emission-reducing measures apparently looked more promising to IEA eyes than did, say, those of transport. Power generation’s efforts could help bring CO2 emissions to their peak during 2020-30 and back to present levels by 2050. But the requisite development of electric and hydrogen-fuelled vehicles for parallel achievement in transport would be expensive.

Unfortunately prophecies like that can afford only scant gratification even to modern power systematists, if they share Lord Desai’s scepticism.

It’s a topsy-turvy world for T&D

This tale is true but, be warned, it turns a mite allegorical later on. It starts with some news I had a year or two ago. The story was about a three-dimensional mapping system that had been developed in response to some serious European power failures. Mobile laser technology had been harnessed by a UK firm to make a portable scanner for a kind of three-dimensional cartography that could be done in an off-road vehicle or, more adventurously, on foot, with all the equipment carried in a back-pack.

The firm’s managing director, Dr Graham Hunter,** explained how the idea of the scanner was born. ‘Major power outages’, he said, ‘are becoming a common occurrence both in Europe and North America’. Alert to current environmental anxieties, he added: ‘One issue is the increased vegetation growth rates we are experiencing, perhaps induced by global warming, which are a contributing factor to many losses of power’.

Then, before sketching the technicalities of his company’s ‘innovative’ system, he summarised its purpose. ‘By monitoring the proximity of vegetation to overhead cables proactive maintenance can be taken’, he declared, ‘therefore minimising liability and improving asset management’.

Dr Hunter acknowledged that traditional airborne laser technology (so-called LIDAR†) had already been used by power-transmitting companies to survey high-voltage networks but he pointed out that low-voltage cables were too near the ground to be detected this way. Yet, as he also pointed out, their ‘size and proximity to both ground and nearby vegetation make them vulnerable to damage therefore increasing the risk of network failure’.

In short, his firm’s claim was that the three-dimensional mapping system gave automatic warning of conflict between vegetation and power lines or other (I quote) overhead infrastructure.

Just think for a moment about bewildering overhead and infrastructure. Isn’t that what you feel when things not only get on top of you but also hit you below the belt? And isn’t it also coincidental with need to bring facts into perspective and get a grip, or become powerless?


*Lord Desai takes as his by-line in The FT his pre-ennoblement name, Meghnad Desai..

** Dr Graham Hunter, managing director, 3D Laser Mapping Ltd, Nottingham, UK. Telephone +44 (0)1666 824668.>

† LIDAR devices parallel those of the much better known RADAR but employ light instead of radio waves.

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