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Saturday, 31 December 2011

Energy in the Grand Strategy

The populist President of Argentina has launched another propaganda attack on the Falkland/Malvina Islands. This announcement - made in concert with fellow-members of a Latin American Union - is a reaction to the news that there are now positive results for oil exploration in the islands' territorial waters. If these discoveries are sufficient for commercial exploitation in  that harsh environment, then the islands become more significant as sovereign territory whose resources can be supervised and taxed by their government. Argentina claims sovereignty on the basis of the relative proximity of Argentina to the islands [compared with the UK]; and responds to the fact that the population are deeply hostile even to negotiations on the sovereignty of their territory by asserting that the islanders are relatively recent settlers who have colonised the area under the protection of the Royal Navy. The new year is the thirtieth anniversary of Britain''s reassertion of sovereignty - by force of arms - following an Argentinian occupation.

With or without oil, the Falklands issue is unique due to the geographical and historical position of the islands. Most of the other island territories under the Crown are more remote from any other state's sovereign mainland. Indeed, the advantage of Diego Garcia and Ascension Island to the US military is that they provide bases and refuelling points for aircraft that are remote from the continents. Other outlying British territories have long ago lost the reason for their original settlement: as Saint Helena ceased to be needed as a watering place and coaling station for ships once the size and range of cargo vessels increased as welding techniques improved, and most passengers crossed the oceans in aircraft. Throughout the twentieth century nobody thought it worth the cost to build either a military airfield or a refuelling airport for civil use on Saint Helena, which meant that tourism could not be developed on the island even though it had a benign climate and the unique Napoleonic legacy. The recent British decision to fund an airport offers the island a new opportunity for a positive economic future in tourism. It would be absurd to wreck the nascent tourist trade by surrounding the islands with [intermittently] whining windmills. It could greatly facilitate economic development of the island if both tidal power and solar energy were developed - unobtrusively - on a sufficient scale to obviating most of the need to import fossil fuels.

None of the small island territories is a sensible candidate for afforestation: so they will be spared the idiocy that has recently been publicised in Britain by which the construction and adaptation of power stations to burn 'biomass' has already led to a timber shortage; as well as raising suspicions that climatically important natural forest is being destroyed to create plantations for fast-growing vegetation, typically on a monoculture basis that has calamitous effects on indigenous species.The small island territories could in principle be suitable locations for nuclear power sources on the scale used in submarines, but this raises security issues and staffing demands that would probably be disproportionately burdensome. Devices to exploit tidal/wave energy carry all the risks of operations on the open seas; but thereafter maintenance demands are relatively low.  Solar panels raise aesthetic challenges and very large arrays are greedy of land: which is why solar power from the deserts of the western USA  has become attractive to Warren Buffet, among a queue of eager investors. But the concept of floating solar panels on the sea opens up an interesting challenge of creating viable and durable installations that capture both wave and solar energy within the same structure, thereby optimising on the significant cost of transmitting the electricity to land.

Simple consideration of the options that are now available for providing energy to support major bases for the development of oceanic and seabed resources shows that Britain has not sufficiently developed the necessary applications of technology. Workshops producing devices to capture tidal [wave] power are few and under-resourced: but the underlying applied  science has been well developed over many years by several high quality research teams who could - if funded - be reconvened [often including retired colleagues] to carry the work through to implementation of their devices on a production scale.

The challenges that will arise in developing a Grand Strategy for the development of the marine resources that are accessible in British sovereign territories will have a huge reflexive impact on the restoration of lost capabilities in pure and applied science, technology and manufacturing. In sharp distinction from the non-jobs and fake apprenticeships that are established under the cheapskate schemes for the statistical reduction of 'unemployment', the jobs that can be created to meet the challenges of the high seas strategy will be real and thus those who are selected for them can be convinced of their importance. This will give validity to the learning that is required to do the jobs, and make acceptable the discipline of learning the proven methods that traditionally-trained artisans can impart to a new generation. It will percolate throughout the economy and all layers of society, and encourage lateral thinking about options that have been ignored within the United Kingdom.

On my regular visits to Derbyshire I travel either by the A6 [road] of the Midland main line [on the railway]: in both cases the route follows the rivers, and the entire course of every river is littered with hundreds of weirs that used to capture water power for corn mills, metal works, silk factories and cotton mill. The relics of obsolete river exploitation occur all the way north through Cheshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria and on into Scotland. Thousands of remnants of mill races could be reinstated to drive generators; but very few people have bothered. Similarly, old maps of Wapping - my London base - show tidal mills as major features of the landscape: a technology so glaringly crying out for use on the Thames - a powerfully tidal river - that I blush every time I recall my own lack of energy in agitating for this to be exploited. I am similarly embarrassed at my lack of energy in campaigning for every pylon that is sunk into the seabed to support an inefficient windmill should be the anchor-point for an installation usefully to capture wave power that could constantly be transmitted by the existing power lines to the national grid.

I am one of the many Brits who have been daunted by the fact that each small proposal for a green energy capture scheme within the UK- even one that re-establishes an historic watermill - is the subject of tedious planning discussion, subjected to environmental audit, opposed by nimbys and counter-productively supported by people who the generality of the neighbourhood regard as nutters. This is attributable to a lack of perspective. The activities subsumed under the control of the Department for Climate Change and Energy [or whatever it is called this week] are seen as bureaucratically controlled and costly to the taxpayer: they appear to be burdensome rather than empowering. Tinkering initiatives cannot change the established mindset; but if there is a Grand Strategy for the UK and all its island territories, that could become inspiring as people could link local opportunities to a grand plan. This concept of changing minds, influencing the national mood, might seem to be pie-in-the-sky: but it is feasible. Nothing on the agenda that is handed down by the political class [even concepts mooted by their sandal-wearing gurus] has shown the slightest sign of making the big breakthrough. Merely offering 'something different' is not enough: it must be something really big, with a make-or-break challenge that can readily be understood; then, as in wartime, people can feel genuinely that 'every little helps'.

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