Sustainability principles inspire scheme for a reincarnation

1 December 2008

Old chimneys could be re-employed to salute the glorious past

Some of our readers may be familiar with – may even have boisterously sung – that sentimental refrain, ‘Old soldiers never die, they only fade away’. You might not think those words likely to be parodied for the last rites of our workplaces. Old power stations rarely just fade away, though they can in parts occasionally outstay the often grudging welcome that they may have enjoyed during their work lives.

Exceptionally, however, the remains of a power station find new uses and win acclaim beyond any received when they were associated with the output of mere megawatts. The Tate Modern Art Gallery in London, UK, may be the world’s greatest success of this kind, having flourished for some years now as a tourist attraction after a worthy but prosaic career as the Bankside Power Station, alongside the British capital city’s River Thames.

I remember writing about this reborn – in effect reincarnated – establishment during the first flush of its triumph (MPS, July 2001). Regretfully, I noted that, when I had visited it, I had found no tiniest token of acknowledgement of the technical art and craft evidenced in its former industrial days. It seemed to me that a suitably mounted and explained turbine blade in a glass case could have made a fitting tribute to the aesthetic accomplishment that is one of the power engineer’s by-products. Its form would have been at least as evocative as that of many an abstract sculptural exhibit in the gallery.

The architect of Bankside Power Station was Giles Gilbert Scott, another of whose Thamesside designs was Battersea Power Station. The hollowed hulk of this once-proud representative of Britain’s then-state-owned electricity supply industry has been eyed by a succession of hopeful property developers but so far none of their schemes has prospered. A new proposal has been exciting some Londoners recently however.

There is talk of a complex of retail shops, business offices, residential flats, hotels, entertainment spots and public spaces. All splendours would be built and equipped in a modern combination that has been described as even more ambitious than any previous offering. Report suggests that the Uruguayan architect, Rafael Viñoly, has a 300m-high chimney as a centrepiece in his plans. This would soar above the four corner-chimneys of the original inverted-table configuration. The giant chimney is allegedly designed to draw air through interiors, controlling their ‘climate’ without need for individual air-conditioning systems. The whole is supposed to be in line with ‘sustainability’ principles, innovatively applied.

But, if the Battersea complex is built as envisaged, the four old chimneys will be brought back into service for a continual salute to the glorious smoke-belching past. They will perform their memorial function without offence. Their plumes will carry nothing pollutant into the atmosphere, only water vapour supplied by plant installed down below. I nearly described the plant as a boiler, but I believe the politically correct term would be evaporator: and of course it will be biofuelled.

Is funding floods an answer?

There cannot be many of us who have lived our recent lives untouched by what the financial and business fraternities have curiously dubbed the 'turmoil' in the world's money, commodity and other markets. Our energy and power industry is of course intimately and intricately involved in the continuing mess, and I sometimes turn – nervously – to the commercial media in search of explanatory pointers to action (or understanding).

I have learnt from appropriate organs of the press that investors have been taking great interest in renewables. Writers have, I find, been warning the people (whose investments are presumably helping to control your and my professional fortunes) that not all renewables are the same, and that investors should choose carefully which ones they should back.

You may like to share a taste of the recommendations I have been savouring. Wind power, I have read in one reputable business newspaper, is agreed by investment experts to constitute the biggest renewable energy market and the one with the best growth prospects. Bets can therefore be placed on wind turbine companies or companies that supply parts for wind turbines. Another 'established technology', I have read further, is 'hydroelectric'. That technology, the writer explains, 'usually consists of flooding areas to make reservoirs or taking energy from dams'. But reassurance follows for canny investors: those measures are 'typically cost competitive'.

Let us hope that at least the spotlit 'established' technologies (were not the Chinese already exploiting both wind and water power more than a couple of millennia ago?) will truly help today's financial wizards to steer us out of the turmoil, and so let us get back to work on all the technologies crying out for attention.

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