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THE GREAT ESCAPE
Much as I respect Susan Greenfield's argument that modern digital lifestyles are having a significant effect on neurological development, the views on video games she expresses in the interview in the November 2014 issue of E&T seem to omit what I feel is the rather obvious point of them for some people, as a very engaging form of escapism.
She says: "It is as if there is a desire to step out of the real world." Well, yes there is! Video games were originally created, and are still designed, to provide experiences that people could not have otherwise. Experiences ranging from the benign, such as the suspension of physical laws, to the more controversial, such as encouraging behaviours that are less acceptable in real life.
Of course the adages "just because you can doesn't mean you should" and "everything in moderation" apply here as in many other areas of life. The playing of video games, especially controversial games, and for how long, is a choice that should be well considered, particularly when children are involved.
Phil Ashby MIET
NEW NAMES FOR ENGINEERING
Professor Kel Fidler suggests that we should endeavour to ensure that the word 'engineer' should only be used to describe a chartered or professional engineer (Letters, November 2014). I believe that is unrealistic, as it is too deeply embedded into everyday language. And believe me, the problems in trying to sell the correct meaning of the term 'engineer' to the press, let alone the general public, would be horrendous and hugely expensive. Just think of the bureaucracy and litigation costs in pursuing every miscreant!
As far back as the 1970s I suggested to the IEE that it and other relevant institutions should invent and register a fancy name for members, to be legally used only by those technically qualified and permitted to do so. It's about time the IET did something, else this topic will rumble on forever.
May I kick the thing off by suggesting the term 'technist'. This would comfortably apply to all our many sectors of engineering and technology and yet falls in line with all the many other '-ists'. The existing 'technologist' would be a poor choice as an alternative, as it is far too long for the press and public to be comfortable with.
The term 'engineer', with all its greasy-hands connotations, can then be left behind us.
Colin Davis CEng MIET
There is a simple solution to the perceived low status of chartered engineers – the Privy Council should be approached to create the regulated title 'chartered technologist'. Chartered engineers are applied scientists and the technologist title is a true description of what we are.
Anthony Williams CEng FIET
I am convinced that we have brought the problem of low status upon ourselves by not establishing a unified professional body. The logical step is for all engineering bodies to come together under a single banner with the right to denote chartered status and the specialist institutions as learned-body divisions. Designating professional engineers by a prefix – and the only one that would already have universal recognition would be Dr – would then bring clarity in the eyes of both public and employers.
Peter Williams CEng MIET
KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON
I recently did some research for a general talk on UK electricity supply and what I found out worried me. Ten years ago plant margin was in excess of 20 per cent; last winter it was 4 per cent. Ofgem commissioned a report earlier this year which concluded that although this margin would not increase over the next five years, supplies would be secure for that period.
What about the longer-term future? Millions of pounds have been poured into subsidies for photovoltaic and wind generation. On a cold winter's evening the former has no output, and the latter has a very poor availability.
By 2020, six coal-fired power stations are to close, totalling more than 30 per cent of present generation capacity. These are perfectly good, but are being shut down to meet EU emission-level reduction targets.
The majority of nuclear stations are ageing and eight are due to shut down by 2030, losing another 15 per cent of capacity. Only one replacement has been discussed, but progress has been on hold whilst the EU scrutinised the proposed contract. Any more are at least 30 years off commissioning and coming on stream. North Sea gas supplies are dwindling and supplies to keep gas-fired power stations going will have to be imported from such places as Russia and the Middle East.
The prospect of losing the lights across the UK is a very frightening one and a matter of national security with a threat arguably greater than any from terrorism. Why has there been no outcry in the press? Why are the politicians and others responsible not held to account?
Alan Dick MIET
HERE COMES THE SUN
I can only take it at face value that the technological aspects of the proposal described in the article on space-based solar power in your November 2014 issue are soundly based. As one who spent years trying to persuade the general public that it was safe to have a mobile phone mast near their homes, the prospect of doing the same for a 300W/m2 microwave beam from space appalls me.
This power density may be safe, maybe it can be targeted where the population can be bribed to accept it. But how are its backers going to assure the UK population that the beam will never wander over them?
Patrick Wyman FIET
Amanda Saint's focus on the UK's low level of renewable capacity and generation (E&T November 2014) is only part of the picture. Base-level cost of generation at around 5p/kWh, which isn't mentioned, has to be the target.
The statement that took my breath away was the assertion by Professor Andy Gouldson, director of the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, that energy prices are fluctuating due to the UK government's fracking programme. This is impossible; there isn't one. Global energy prices are currently volatile due primarily to global macro-economics and politics.
Solar feed-in tariffs were badly designed, with far too high an initial rate and long-term return guarantees that caused a gold rush amongst wealthy home-owners. Incentives are justified to support new technologies, but subsidising already obsolescent thick-film PV panels is simply daft.
My view is not one of climate change denial, but half-baked policy is not a professional response. Subsidy junkies don't seem to realise that the money spent on their activities takes wealth away from individuals, and diverts investment from projects with a real return.
My plea is for major government investment to be not only on seedcorn for pilots but to be focused on capital research into the next disruptive technology. I fear that in a decade or two we shall be buying Chinese thorium reactors.
Robin Charles CEng MIET
According to the caption next to a photograph of an onshore wind farm in Amanda Saint's article, 'Onshore wind farms are unpopular with the public and do not generate as much energy as offshore installations'.
This year's Department for Energy and Climate Change annual Public Attitudes Tracker found that 80 per cent of people support the use of renewable energy to meet our energy needs, and 70 per cent support the development of onshore wind. In answer to the statement "I would be happy to have a large scale renewable energy development in my area" 59 per cent agreed and 17 per cent opposed. This level has been fairly consistent across all nine survey waves and with more detailed surveys undertaken elsewhere.
In terms of cost per MWh installed, onshore wind is one of the cheapest forms of new-build installation. A recent study by Ecofys on behalf of the European Commission found that accounting for external costs, onshore wind costs roughly €105/MWh, compared with nuclear, offshore wind, solar at around €125/MWh, gas at €164/MWh and coal at €233/MWh.
John Fairlie MIET
A WELCOME POLICY
UKIP's announcement in their education policy that they would scrap tuition fees for UK students on approved STEM degree courses is wonderful news for engineering and technology. The well documented skills shortage experienced in many sectors has a crippling effect on the competitiveness of British industries and on our country as a whole. This policy would undoubtedly encourage many of our brightest and best into engineering, and underline the value we, as a society, put on engineers.
It's great to see a political party finally appreciate the strategic, economic and social importance of engineering and manufacturing and understand the difference this wealth-generating sector can make to our country's 'bottom line', to public services and to our jobs market.