Feedback: your letters

In the readers' letters this issue: how should the energy sector respond to soaring oil prices?

Oil price wake up call

The problems created by our demands for energy are all too often examined at a very superficial level, and the more serious discussion in your recent 'green issue' was very welcome.

The complete rejection of nuclear energy by one of the major UK political parties is a measure of how willing we are to keep our heads in the sand as we use up our fossil fuels. Even the current price of oil fails to draw sufficient attention to the consequences. The view from the future is likely to be that we have been almost unbelievably irresponsible in using up such a vast reserve of oil in so few generations.

Jeremy Rifkin ('The third industrial revolution') is one of the few commentators pointing to the most obvious weakness of a dependence on wind and tidal power, in that they are intermittent. The strongest advocates of such alternatives will be among those baying for blood at the first power failures, when much of the supply disappears at a time of maximum demand. But Rifkin's claim that the peak in oil prices is in sight seems to be completely unjustified as the wider demands for energy climb so rapidly to American levels.

The enforced switch to alternative methods of vehicle propulsion will add greatly to the demand for electrical power, and it is now well accepted that meeting even the current demand will soon be causing problems in the UK.

Although distributed generation and hydrogen storage may well make major contributions, it is doubtful whether they are likely to be sufficient, in the longer term, and even less chance that such drastic changes can be introduced in time to meet our more urgent needs.

The common assertion - that oil production is adequate, and that the current price increase is artificial and unnecessary - illustrates a remarkably short-term view. Whatever the immediate position, the time will come when demand outstrips supply, and it now seems all too likely that this will be very soon. The present demands for a reduction in tax, so that we can continue to consume oil at the present rate, help to emphasise our short-sightedness, and provide a foretaste of the uproar of the near future, when the increasing world oil needs cannot be met.

Global warming shows that it is not simply a matter of replacing oil with coal - another limited resource, however large. The difficulties of clean-coal technology, and of biomass sources, help to increase doubts about whether our response to our energy problems has anything like the urgency which the situation now demands. The only 'clean' base-load technology anywhere in sight is nuclear fusion, and at the current rate of progress it is likely to be a long time, at best, before this can make any contribution. If price rises do not wake us up, then the sunset of the oil era is likely to be very painful experience.

John Carpenter, Bath

$100 pipe dream

In response to RJ Parsons (Feedback, #9), the 'hundred dollar' XO laptop is now generally regarded as a failed experiment. The laptop, which incidentally costs $188, can now be shipped with Windows XP for an additional $10 (Microsoft only charges $3 per licence). This has been driven by demand from more developed countries such as Egypt. Developing countries need books, pencils and teachers - not Professor Negroponte's pipe dream.

David Laverty MIET, Belfast

Player power

Your article on buying a portable media player (#9) missed two important questions to ask. First, will it remember where I have got to in the podcast I am listening to if I pause the player and power it down for a time? Second, is the internal rechargeable battery replaceable at the end of its life, and do I need access to a PC in order to recharge it?

Of the three media players I own, my shiny new Sony Walkman can't remember where it was in a podcast and my iPod Shuffle and the Sony Walkman need a PC or standalone USB charger. Only my ancient Goodmans MP3 player takes a standard AAA rechargeable battery.

Bob Anderson CEng MIET, Abingdon

UK rail can learn from other countries

'Inventors' Inbox' in the 12 April 2008 issue of E&T discusses ways to improve railway performance in Britain. While I realise that the article is intended to encourage open-ended thinking, I feel I should point out an obvious lack of understanding. Like many commentators, when it comes to imagining future high-speed developments, the authors are drawn to comparison with Japanese experience with the Shinkansen 'bullet-train', which we are told regularly travels at 300km/h. Why is no mention made of the fact that these speeds are already achieved by Eurostar trains in Kent?

Britain has for too long thought it could invent its way out of a problem, when in fact what was needed was political will and the courage to admit that lessons could be learned from continental Europe, which has largely committed to a pan-European railway network.

Trains in France, Germany, Spain and Belgium have operated high-speed services for decades. Very soon, passengers will be able to travel from Brussels to Madrid, or Bonn to Rome, without changing trains and with a single ticket. This is only possible because countries committed to a programme of track building a long time ago, realised the funds for the project and saw it through without the sort of problems and delays which seem endemic in British infrastructural projects.

I find it additionally depressing to see that engineers, and others, are still talking about Maglev trains offering any solution. They don't. Last year, a wheeled train ran at speeds comparable with magnetically trains (574km/h), proving that very high speeds don't require punishingly high track structure costs.

John Jaques CEng, Izeaux, France

Scuttling nuclear waste

Some work of the oceanographer Bob Ballard that has recently been declassified could have great relevance to the disposal of nuclear waste. It brings together two facts.

Firstly that the Titanic was discovered 73 years after sinking 4km into a deep canyon still remarkably well preserved, and secondly that two nuclear powered submarines, which sank and imploded and one of which had left a long debris trail, "left little risk to the environment from radioactivity".

Does this not reinforce the argument for disposal of nuclear waste in deep ocean canyons? The waste could be solidified in the tanks of redundant double-skin oil tankers which would then be scuttled under carefully controlled conditions into such canyons where they could remain undisturbed for the long periods required for the radioactivity to be dissipated.

Norman Williams FIEE, Rugby

Caught on camera

Regarding the article 'Big Brother in the Big Apple' in your 24 May issue about the adoption of CCTV surveillance technology in the US. Paraphrasing one of the founding fathers of America: "He who sacrifices liberty for security deserves neither". Benjamin Franklin is as relevant today as he was in the 18th Century.

New York to use London as a role model? Possibly London should consider using New York as a role model by 'not keeping quiet' if being caught on camera 200 times per day in any way displeases us.

Matthew Geyman, London

Invisibility isn't magic

I strongly disagree with the use of Harry Potter as a background image to the piece on invisibility technologies in issue 8 of E&T. Harry Potter is a fantasy novel. It would have been far better to have used the image of a Klingon 'bird of prey' from 'Star Trek', a science-fiction show in which the cloaking mechanism is a cloaking device and not magic as in Harry Potter.

David Laverty MIET, Belfast

Solar's poor returns

Chris Pryor ('PV outlook not so sunny', 10 May 2008) is right to highlight the unattractive financial return on domestic solar power systems like the one described in Chris Goodall's article 'Living a low-carbon life', but there are relatively few such systems actually being installed. As an electrical engineer with some 30 years' experience in the electrical 'wet' heating industry, I am more concerned at the much larger numbers of 'thermal' solar panel systems that are being installed, and increasingly promoted by the industry, without a realistic view of the likely returns.

There is a wide consensus in this industry on three basic parameters. The annual energy usage on domestic hot water in an average home is some 3,400kWh which, at a reasonable cost by gas, oil or off-peak electricity of around 5p/kWh, gives an annual cost of £170 (including 5 per cent VAT). The accepted almost-standard size of solar panel for such an installation is one which saves some 50 per cent of annual DHW costs - i.e. £85 per year. A typical installed cost of such an installation is around £4,000 (including 17.5 per cent VAT.)

The return on this investment is thus around only 2.1 per cent. If the extra annual cost of normal rate electricity in running the additional pump used in most such installations is taken as £29 (assuming 80W consumption for an average of 10 hours a day at 10p/unit), the return falls to only 1.4 per cent.

Considering interest rates currently available on savings accounts, let alone the higher rates of loan finance, who would 'invest' in such a system knowing what the returns were likely to be?

Geoffrey White MIET, Port Appin, Argyll

Email peeves

'Exposed: E-mail's Worst Habits' (#9) was a common-sense guide that, sadly, too many people seem to need. My own pet peeve is managers who send out a meeting request without any explanation as to the meeting's purpose. If you really feel the need to trap several key personnel in a room for an hour or more, then at least spend a couple of your own valuable minutes letting them know what it's going to be about!

Chris Kessell MIEE, Cheltenham

Security for free

Dmitri Vitaliev ('On my Desktop', 10th May) has some sound advice about computer security. As he points out, Windows is less secure than other alternatives such as Linux or OSX on a Mac. However, he failed to consider Solaris, which I feel is unjustified, as it is one of the most secure general-purpose operating systems.

Solaris runs on specialist SPARC based systems from Sun, but also on typical Intel/AMD x86 PCs. It comes with a browser (Firefox), email client (Thunderbird), as well as software for general office tasks which can read/write the files used by Microsoft Office. A firewall (ipfilter) is included, although you need to configure this.

Commercial engineering software such as Labview, Matlab and Mathematica are all available for Solaris on SPARC systems, although Mathematica is the only one of the three available on Solaris x86 based systems.

Dr David Kirkby MIET, by email

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