ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
I’m not referring to myself, of course, nor particularly to Newton’s Second Law of Motion which you may remember readily deposited my daughter on the tarmac from the back of my Norton, though I may actually be referring to a number of Climatologists who continue to wax lyrical on our impending doom. In the circumstances it is best not to give them too much elbowroom. That the world can only cope with so much interference in its natural order seems clear enough to anyone with the smallest bit of wit. Only God is big enough, and whatever the almighty’s form, would consider the earth a veritable needle in a haystack among all those stars they've created, or whatever the celestial idiomatic equivalent is. From a human perspective at least, one is naturally inclined to agree it’s a worry, but deciding what, or who, is culpable for a perceived disorder is an entirely different matter. In Italy, besides the megatons of plastic floating about in the Mediterranean, and extremely nasty touches of the shakes every now and again, we don’t seem to suffer the colossal disasters of the Pacific regions. Of course, Etna and Vesuvius may one day erupt, and that will surely be a nasty business. The more so as the state, and the locals seem to simply ignore the possibility, and hope the very idea will go away. When they do erupt, which one gathers is only a matter of time, the good souls are going to find themselves well and truly stuck between Scylla and Charybdis, if that’s the right idiom for a sea loving maritime people. However, I’m not going to strike a dissonant note on the “superstrada to doom” we are all supposed to be on, for I consider it to be a confused, even perverted, position depending on which prophet, and their suspect climate model, is flavour of the month. Such models are the equivalent of opinion polls, and just as unreliable. One would have thought that the exponents of what is virtually a pseudo science might have heard of Quantum Mechanics, or the Uncertainty Principle, which underlines all modern science and technology. Nothing is therefore predictable! Except perhaps, that some people are making a lot of money out of climate paranoia. Which is not to say I don’t believe in Climate Change, because it is perfectly evident that it does vacillate between extremes. Something like an erratic pendulum. The only disclaimer I make is that I also believe that man has little to do with it, bar adding the odd ingredient like pollution, and the supposed result is realy one of catastrophic natural phenomena designed to bring us a lot of grief. Nature has had a lot of practice. Longer even than our concept of time itself.
Time was a matter discovered by the ancient Egyptians, who besides battling with the annual inundation of the Nile invented the twelve calendar months of thirty days, commencing in 4241B.C. Their calendar was a quarter of a day shorter than the solar year due to Sirius appearing a day late every four years, so they added a temporary patch of five days on the end. Julius Caesar appears to have been miffed by this discrepancy, and added a full day every four years on 29th of February. Therefore, you could say this is year 6260, not 2019, and you wouldn’t be wrong. This lengthy blast just goes to prove that Caesar wasn’t the slightest bit interested in Climate Change, though he was interested in that beautiful Egyptian volcano, Cleopatra. So, given we’re dealing with an intriguing and intelligent set of people, we’ll stay with Egypt a little longer as It's possible they can provide us with an interesting analogy.
Natural climate and geological changes, many thousands of years before the Pharaohs arrived, had turned a fertile region into a land bereft of vegetation and soil, making it, for the most part, virtually uninhabitable. Egypt is not rainless, but the odd showers often years apart, don’t add up to the making of a sustainable agriculture. Enter the spring floods of the Nile, and with it a rich alluvium capable of fertilizing the soil. That is, if it could be made to stay put. Try pouring water on sand when you’re next at the beach. Right. That’s where the ancient Egyptian genius in the mechanical arts came into play. They developed a vast and complicated system of irrigation canals and reservoirs allowing them to water the fields year round by artificial means, thus defeating the disaster of their climate. Like the human race, climate comes and go’s. Unhappily in Egypt’s case, it was the people. Indeed, it's always the people. None the less, occasionally, man can do something about his problems, but not necessarily by the very dangerous concept of changing the climate. When the next Ice Age comes we’ll know it wasn’t us, but a variation in the intensity and heat from the sun, not because there are too many motorcars. The real lesson of Egypt remains. Where possible, we have to learn to fit in by giving things we can do, a nudge in the right direction. When they’re too big, as in Naples, it’s best to make yourself scarce. Nevertheless, the attempts we make to save our souls do not always work, and when we step back to look at them can see it's patently the case.
Such an attitude is something climate activists close their eyes to, and as this is far too wide a subject to fit into a blog I will hone in on one area that particularly concerns Italy, and one where climatologists manage to get very hot under the collar utilizing a lot of energy. Ah! Energy. You’ve taken the word right out of my mouth.
Courtesy of the artist: Esdaile Hudson
Energy is a big subject, and like Egypt has been around for a long time. In its simplest form energy is the capacity for doing work. Not something modern man takes much delight in. Getting out of bed in the morning takes a lot of energy. Some of it is potential, like pulling the sheet back over your head. Essentially though, at this moment we’re only interested in electrical energy. This has caused a great deal of misgivings over the last fifty years, as initially its generation was provided by coal, and not without reason, dubbed ‘dirty’ energy, a great subject for political economists, and essential stuff for a climate crisis. Since then energy companies have cleaned their act up, and switched to nuclear. People followed suit and ditched the black stuff. It helped. The city of Bath cleaned up all its Georgian buildings, and surprised everybody who thought oolite limestone was black! No matter. It remained essential stuff for the climate lobby! Sometimes they just don’t seem to be able to get it right, even when it’s not altogether wrong. Nuclear power is clean, efficient and compact, producing very low emissions of greenhouse gases – less CO2 than hydro, wind, solar or biomass. For generating electricity nothing else is in the same class, and their stations don’t exactly clutter up the place like wind turbines, of which more anon. However, one thing we can all agree upon is that they are very dangerous when they get out of hand, as at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. But to keep it in proportion, approximately 32 people died in these accidents, (No precise evidence exists for collateral deaths) whereas 1.3 million people die in motor accidents every year. The potential for nuclear power disasters may be conceivable, but they’re virtually hypothetical when compared with vehicle collisions, and no one’s thinking of banning motorcars. This is a problem of psychology: nuclear being responsible for the nightmares of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and yes, you do need a power station to produce the fuel for a nuclear bomb, but not the type that powers up the 100 watt bulb in your sitting room. Leaving contentious issues aside, there is also the rather large problem of the initial fuel needed to start up such a power station. Apparently, studies estimate that the world has less than 150 years worth of material left, given the projected future construction projects envisaged. If you think that will solve the green lobby’s problem once and for all you can think again. Apparently, we’ve only got ten to twenty years left before we’ve destroyed the planet! Naturally, I’m not so sure. The Green lobby might be gone, like the Pharaohs, but it’s quite likely that the rest of the planet will be doing just fine.
Italy won’t be caught up in the issue, as any country as seismically responsible as she is, wouldn’t touch the stuff with a barge pole. No. It’s rather a question of spoiling the face of the earth with solar farms or wind turbines. A Tuscany covered with glass, or studded with lines of turbines is a socially acceptable option according to the regional authorities. The Renaissance landscape is a thing of the past. In the middle of a depression no one bothered to ask the natives, who might be expected to have noticed a few noughts knocked off their property values. No one was waving hard cash at them any longer, so what’s the problem? Once upon a time, back in 1904 before the rot set in, a great deal of hope was pinned on the world’s first geothermal power plant using volcanic steam at Larderello in Tuscany. It’s a rather smelly sulphurous zone supplying electricity to local households at a reduced rate for having to live with the pong! And that was that. Having tried to repeat this experiment by drilling holes all over the place, they drew a blank except in a zone between Pisa and Grosseto which now supply 30% of Tuscany's needs. No doubt with a sigh of relief from the areas selected. At least it saved most of Italy from an ugly rash of massive cooling towers even less aesthetic than Staffordshire’s ‘beehive’ brick making kilns. But the authorities were not down and out yet. Someone pointed out that Tuscany has is a fair amount of sun and wind, so why not give this eco stuff a punt. Technology. That was the way to go. Danish figures indicated 1000 dollars a kw, or I million dollars per mw, somewhat lower than the 3.5 million US dollars for a 2.5 mw turbine up and running. Even finding the money in cash strapped Italy wasn’t exactly a problem. Hadn’t the EU given the UBI Banca Group 200 million euros for energy efficiency projects, and if so, weren’t turbines in there with a chance? Of course, and so were the Mafia, who, as you can imagine, were dead keen to reduce CO2 emissions. They did build a few turbines in Sicily on some of these handouts, but no one seems to know if they actually plugged them in. Neither does anyone know how many brown envelopes changed hands in Tuscany, as a local commune is only responsible for agreeing what land is available. The owner gets the cash. It was exactly the same with solar farms, where planning permission gets by on the nod. In the UK, councils would have had to face a quarrelsome local meeting that might have turned ugly. Not in Italy. Not many want to stand up and be counted. Much rather turn the place into a techno park when the tourists stop coming. After all, a wind turbine is clean, beautiful, sleek, and a technological symbol in this new computer age!
It is also a problem like any other social misfit. Like those ‘bovver boys’ of old, they make a disastrous visual impact on the environment. Its destruction of bird life is tragic, and possibly not sustainable. Do we know what part birds play in keeping nature on course, and in balance, as they hoover up problem bugs and beasties? And do we really know how the off shore turbine versions will effect the marine life, long term? When there isn’t any, we’ll know! Turbines can also be mechanically dangerous as blades have been known to come off, and at close to 200 miles per hour they tend to go a long way. The tip speed might look leisurely, but it isn’t at the spindle! Hence they now need a lot of acres round them, or a site well away from habitation, like out at sea where they can disrupt the marine ecology as well. That still leaves a lot of old ones parked among the population. Pontedere, famous as the home of Piaggio and the Vespa in Tuscany, has them handy for Pisa airport. Has anyone there mentioned ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’ to the local council, and the problem of ‘Infrasound’, illness caused by chronic sleep loss similar to that suffered by residents living on noisy city streets. Probably not. Nor will they have considered that each turbine is sitting on a huge 90 feet deep concrete foundation that will clutter up the place when its twenty-year life is over. Not so much a problem with half a dozen, but on a different scale when, like Germany, you have to dismantle 28,000 by 2023. Renaissance Tuscany? With the Solar Park, It’ll be more like Portland Park!
Are there any alternatives you may ask, and probably there are. It won’t be “Made in Italy”, but a number of other countries are quietly beavering away at creating an acceptable energy solution that will be ideal for geologically unstable places as well. Wind turbines, it must be remembered, will only ever supply a small part of societies needs due to their having to rely on the unreliable. So what will safely supply all our need for electricity on the windless balmy days, and potentially all, and every day?
An excellent idea seems to be Nuclear Fusion instead of Nuclear Fission. To be quite clear we are talking about the same idea – heat from radioactive decay – but from a wholly different perspective. Hold a piece of Uranium 238 in the palm of your hand and it will have as much effect as any other piece of rock. But a minute part of Uranium 238 is fissile, Uranium 235, meaning it can be split apart in a chain reaction, and is the fuel for the present nuclear reactors which supply our electricity, and also nuclear weapons. On the other hand, Thorium-232 is found everywhere in nature, even Cornwall is sitting on a huge chunk of the stuff. There’s enough fuel out there to power us for tens of thousands of years. Better still, Thorium is not fissile, meaning it doesn’t start splitting apart and exploding in a chain reaction moment. But it does need to be started, and for this it requires the nasty Uranium 235 to initially kick it into life. Once that’s done, Uranium 235 can be dispensed with. The good thing about Thorium is that if you forget to attend to its needs it goes to sleep, and when working, produces very little waste as the material is completely burnt, unlike uranium fuel, which is 98% waste and radioactive for 10,000 years.
So why is there such a lack of interest in what appears to be a very sound option to Italy’s energy problems, and ecologically helpful as well?
To put it bluntly, there isn’t any incentive. It’s not one of cost or shortage of fuel that dogs it, but energy operating experience fully developed and adequately accommodated for by solid fuel reactors. Why change? It seems that it’s a ‘better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’. No one in Europe is into spending billions on developing alternatives, or changing what has cost billions already, for no extra performance. Safety and longevity don’t seem to be among their criteria. But Thorium’s time will come, and meanwhile we can leave nature to do what it does best:
Let Uther-Pendragon do what he can,
The river Eden will run as it ran.