It is most important that the customers’ instant requirements can be met
They don’t make them like that anymore1 December 2007
The mass-produced-automobile pioneer, Henry Ford, famously declared that history is bunk. Well, there has been a lot of history since he said that, and its current unfolding has been giving a deal of trouble to his descendants in the motor manufacturing dynasty that he founded.
I wonder what they would add to their ancestor’s pronouncement.
Personally, I find history rather appealing, especially in relation to our own beloved industry. So you can imagine the delight that I experienced when I recently stumbled upon an almost-mint-condition copy of a forty-year-old monograph on the instrumentation and control of boiler-turbine units in British power stations.† The booklet presents what today seems a charmingly old-fashioned and straightforward technical account of its subject, economically packed into just under fifty pages.
The authors confined themselves mainly to the practice of their times but did touch on immediate prospects and what they called ‘likely future trends’. And they limited themselves to the 500MW units with coal- and/or oil-fired drum boilers operating at sub-critical conditions. A sprinkling of avant-garde computer control instances must have made the monograph’s content look very up-to-date then but it ends with some suitably cautious discussion of the relative merits of analogue and digital machines. Digital methods could only prevail, mused the authors, ‘if economic and operational factors justified them’. But they had ‘no doubt that full automation will be achieved’.
The instrumentation they referred to seems to have dealt with what might now be regarded as just the more basic variables. There was no sense of such things to come as an ever more pressing concern with pollution of the environment and, in due course, the possibility of CO2-implicated global warming and climate change. Their concluding remarks about what they believed the future held for the control engineers ended with confidence. ‘Electrical energy cannot be stored,’ they wrote, ‘yet it is most important that the customers’ instant requirements can be met and that plant failures likely to produce immediate deterioration of the service to the customer be kept to a minimum.’ And that was it. In the global history of electrical power supply, how does that stand as having been a guiding principle?
No, I can’t answer that either. But I have just read about one possible modern contributor to any global statistics that may be able to tell us the answer. Nigeria, which is rich in oil, has a generating capacity said to suffice for only one lamp per Nigerian. The initials NEPA stand officially for National Electric Power Authority but are more popularly translated in the republic as Never Electric Power Always.
Fillet fossils for impunity
The science editor of a long-established English newspaper recently devoted most of a quarter-page article to what he called ‘one of the strangest-sounding ideas for saving the planet’, but he added that it ‘is backed by many scientists’. Its technology is straightforward, he claimed, yet could ‘ward off the worst effects of greenhouse warming’. Are you agog?
The idea, he explained, is to ‘convert the world’s reservoirs of fossil fuel into their main chemical components, carbon dioxide and non-polluting hydrogen’,†† and then to burn the hydrogen ‘to make electricity while burying the carbon dioxide underground’. Thus possibly billions of tonnes of climate-changing carbon could be stored in old oil fields and sediment layers deep below the seabed.
That would not in his belief be all, however, as the next sentence revealed. ‘Homes and factories could then continue to burn oil and gas with impunity’. Just think!