Opinion - Your letters

Feedback: Your letters

Using capacity payments

The issues about UK electricity supply raised in 'Nuclear power: is the white paper enough?'(Vol 3 #7) warrant further consideration. It is important that we develop a generation market structure that is equitable and which incentivises the addition (or removal) of plants. We must recognise that electrical energy cannot be stored in any meaningful way in a large power system and that, therefore, power capacity needs to be addressed as a separate product. This is already recognised in the capacity contracts for 'response' and 'reserve', and should be recognised in the need to meet demand and provide an appropriate plant planning margin.

Financial indemnity is a 'soft loan' (a subsidy), and would distort the proper allocation of capital. Capacity payments based on capital charges would be paid to all plants that contribute to meeting demand and required plant planning margin, and would thus be equitable.

Following UK privatisation, the 'pool' made a form of capacity payments on the basis of loss of load probability and value of lost load, but the replacement arrangement, NETA, relied wholly on an energy market to provide the feedback to incentivise new plant build. This feedback loop is very weak because it is operating via a market that is based on short-run marginal costs, rather than capital charges.

The existing arrangement militates against high capital cost plant in that there is no separate payment to compensate for the risk of putting a large amount of capital at stake. Investors in such a plant would endeavour to recover their capital charges in the energy market. Not only would prices in the energy market fall if capital charges were recovered separately, but also, because the capacity payments could be relied upon, overall prices should be reduced.

Practical arrangements would require involvement of Ofgem in that competition would be by tender for capacity to meet future maximum demands and plant planning margin requirements. The tender could be for a particular type of plant in order to give an acceptable plant mix. In order for a market arrangement to endure and be effective it must be fair to all players, and cover all products. To do this, all subsidies should be removed as soon as possible and capacity payments introduced.

Colin Gibson , Fellow, Cormiston, Biggar

Training for explosive environments

Much effort has gone into the subject of controlling potentially explosive atmospheres, including at least two EC directives and work by the Health and Safety Executive. Such hazards are all too evident in the petroleum manufacturing, storage and distribution industry. A great deal of effort is made to try to ensure that all personnel working in such an atmosphere will have received training in appropriate areas of the subject. Other areas include working in a petrol filling station and in water and waste-treatment plants.

In the UK, training for electrical personnel has been developed on a national basis and covers general subject knowledge and practical methods, techniques and equipment used. Prior to a certificate of competence being issued, the candidate is assessed on their knowledge and practical ability.

Suitable training courses are offered by a network of training centres. In the absence of an appropriate centre within range of the plant, the plant operator can provide suitable training for operatives. However, they will thereby assume responsibility for the competence of those operators. Any certificate they might give to their workforce will only be valid on plants under their own jurisdiction.

Within living memory there have been a number of disasters that might have been avoided had a greater awareness of the potential issues been taken into account. Of course, not all failures can be blamed on the person working on the site. Some have been attributable to errors in the general design or installation of the plant where the concurrence of a certain set of rarely occuring conditions could have been the cause.

There have been some attempts to bring home to the captains of industry the fact that it is not only electrical personnel who carry responsibility for safety. Many non-electrical personnel also work in, places where potentially explosive atmospheres might exist. It is to this group of persons that future training should be directed.

RJ Richman MIET, Penge, London

Breaking through

A key element in the 'Inventors' Inbox' discussion about how the UK railway network could be upgraded (Vol 3 #6) was the role that tunnels could play in creating a faster, smoother and more efficient system. While we need to show initiative and imagination in devising better ways for transport, the major obstacle is the high cost of tunnelling, particularly through hard rock where very expensive drilling and blasting is the only technology currently available.

Even where continuous mining machines can be used for soft sedimentary deposits, the crippingly high cost of cutting the Channel Tunnel with continuous mining machines through soft chalk provides a caution that our tunnelling technology is still in its infancy.

The expanding city communities, high cost of urban land, and the increasing shortage of arable land makes underground transportation increasingly attractive. Particularly attractive is the possibility of driving such tunnels in a straight line with few right of way issues, and operating in evacuated systems to reduce resistance to high-speed motion. The construction of such conduits, coupled with development of suitable maglev systems, would seem to offer the potential of safe and comfortable mass transit systems at high speeds with a fraction of the fuel consumption of competing aircraft.

A major obstacle remains the technical inability to break hard rocks in a continuous, automated and efficient way. A prerequisite is therefore to expand our knowledge of rock characteristics, to provide capability for new rock fragmentation techniques that would permit construction of energy efficient automated tunnelling systems.

Recognition of this need would be by the establishment of an international centre of excellence for innovative rock-breaking technology.

Michael P Sudbury PEng, Ontario, Canada

Language is the key

Like Kevin Gallagher (Feedback, Vol 3, #7), I am one of the small minority of British engineers who have taken the time and trouble to master foreign languages, first German (which I use at work) and now Japanese.

I find it increasingly frustrating that so few Britons (not just engineers) make the effort to learn a language, which is probably the biggest factor holding back this country's competitiveness in world markets.

In Germany, for example, a foreign language at school is compulsory up to 18 and even for engineering degrees a language module has to be taken. In Britain you don't even have to do a GCSE in German.

The British attitude to this is "Why bother? They all speak English". This is simply not true. Even if they all did, you'd find that the standard fluctuates so wildly that you would have trouble making yourself understood. Apart from communication, speaking your customer's language is also a matter of respect and it shows that you value them to an even greater extent.

At my former (UK) employer I met with similar responses to Stephen McFarlane (Feedback, Vol 3, #6) when I said I wanted to learn Japanese. At my current (German) employer I have been encouraged to develop it and will be going on a three-month placement to our sister plant in Japan later this year.

I chose Japanese for two reasons. First, Japanese is the language of the world's second biggest economy, and secondly it is the language of lean production, which is my main area of work. If we in the West want to emulate the successes of Toyota etc, then we have to not only learn the technology, but also the way of thinking and expression, which come through understanding their language. How many people reading this can actually recognise the Kanji for "gemba kaizen" or "hoshin kanri"?

Learning a language is the key to so many doors that we normally never get to open. Sooner or later companies have to recognise this or we will fall even further behind.

Mit freundlichen Grüßen/, best regards.

Mark Atkins, Bexbach, Germany

Parallel paths

I enjoyed reading Barry Faith's letter on parallel career paths in engineering and management (Vol 3, #7). I too worked for a leading UK telecommunications company that introduced parallel career paths in the late 1990s. This was a very successful move and, for the first time, allowed technical people with no managerial aspirations or abilities to achieve senior management status without having to take on management roles.

However, around 2004, the same company, having expanded extensively world-wide, decided to introduce global banding across all its operations. The main casualty of this move was the parallel career path process. The global banding could not facilitate the technical experts and most were reduced to lower bands and ended up stuck at the senior staff grades. Salaries and pensions were preserved but after a short transition period, perks such as cars, health insurance, senior management share options etc were lost. A real staff motivator!

Needless to say, it appears that significant numbers of these staff are no longer with their former employer. How do other countries address this parallel career path issue?

Gerard O'Neill FIEE, by email

Acid test for low-cost computing

I was baffled by the conclusions of your comparison between the Classmate and XO-1 PCs (Gadget Speak, Vol 3, #7).

The far higher price of the Classmate does indeed include a better basic specification than the XO-1, but that is a necessity because it runs Windows XP, which is obsolescent, while the XO-1 uses a current, and upgradeable, version of Fedora Linux.

Surely the test should be whether the device is suitable for its intended purposes and this is quite clearly the case for the XO-1, which includes excellent programs for all normal activities.

The developing world does desperately require transferable skills for the IT world, and this requires a deep understanding of software usage - not necessarily of one proprietary and expensive operating system.

RJ Parsons MIEE, Sudbury, Canada

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