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Letters to the editor: volume 18, issue 3

Image credit: Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash

In the April 2023 issue of E&T, readers discuss the risks of smart motorways, tidal energy’s potential and more.

Smart motorways should be fail-safe

There have been several instances recently of failures of UK smart motorway control centres to control overhead gantry signals. Sometimes by ‘design’, following a planned software upgrade, and sometimes by accident, such as a control-system software failure. In one recent case, a software upgrade failed and left a motorway totally uncontrolled for several hours.

Smart motorways should be fail-safe. If communication from the control centre is lost, then the whole motorway should go to a safe, or at least a ‘safer’, state. A simple heartbeat signal between the control centre and each gantry would suffice to confirm communication was still active. If the heartbeat signal is lost, then the gantries should collectively close the left lane, creating an old-style hard shoulder, and impose a speed limit on all other lanes of, say, 40mph. An advisory ‘control centre failure’ message might be used, and maybe also amber flashing lights on each lane. That’s standard fail-safe operation, which designers have missed putting in place.

Failing the provision of that fail-safe capability, or while it is developed, the nearside lane should be set to ‘closed’ and a speed limit imposed prior to any software update procedure that might cause loss of control.

Richard Tetley MIET


Tidal power needs more investment

One criticism of the sort of tidal power systems described in ‘Turn the Tide’ (March 2023) is that twice a day, at low and high water, generation falls to zero. However, one element that frequently seems to be overlooked is that these points don’t occur everywhere at the same time.

A quick look at one day’s UK tide tables shows that at Holyhead (mentioned in the article) low water was 2.25am, at Aberdeen 5.35am and Portree 11.30am, a range of six hours. Obviously, the tidal flows will be different at these locations, but a detailed study would find other suitable locations to enable a constant output to replace or supplement fossil fuels and/or nuclear. Put simply, a three-hour high/low water difference between two tidal generators would mean one is generating at maximum while the other is generating nothing. The result would be, roughly, the addition of two sine waves with a 90-degree phase shift, a slightly variable output.

Unlike wind and solar, strategically located tidal generators could supply a near-​constant baseload capability that would be predictable well into the future. The article mentioned costs and difficulties of maintenance, but surely these would be lower and better than those associated with nuclear generation.

More work, development and investment need to be put into this area of power generation as it seems to be a valuable addition to green energy production that is lagging far behind wind and solar.

Stuart MacArthur CEng MIET

By email

Marine energy is a victim of political short-termism

‘Turn the Tide’, and especially the bold vision of marine energy provided by UK Marine Energy Centre chair Sue Barr, provided a long overdue focus on the elephant in the room of our nation’s energy opportunities – both below and on the waves.

In the late 20th century I project-managed for Ewbank Preece Energy Projects a study of the progress and potential of the UK wave-energy programme for the Department of Energy/AERE in association with Gifford & Partners. We reviewed early designs including Salter’s ducks, Bristol Cylinder, Lancaster Bag and several oscillating water columns. In our report’s concluding recommendations, I pleaded with the government to resist its declared intended policy of reducing energy prices as North Sea gas and oil came ashore, and instead to use any surplus to fund marine energy R&D.

All subsequent governments ignored my pleas and we lost 30 years before the European Marine Energy Centre was launched in Orkney in 2001. A predicted 20 per cent of UK total demand could easily now be displacing dependence on Russian gas and oil.

The UK should long ago have taken control of energy out of Westminster and short-term-thinking politics, as Gordon Brown did with interest rates, and placed it instead in the responsibility of a selected, long-term thinking committee in the national interest of all independent, specialist professional advisers and stakeholders.

Brian Mallalieu MIET


Could harbours generate energy?

I was interested to read the article on tidal energy in the March issue of E&T. Holidaying in Cornwall last summer, it struck me that the many tidal harbours could be adapted to capture energy, along the lines of the old tide mills. It would need the addition of lock gates at the harbour entrance, and turbines to extract the energy as the harbour fills and empties with each tide. Has anyone considered this? Or even tried it?



Letters section cartoon from April 2023 issue of E&T

Image credit: E&T

UK needs an internal energy market

Runaway consumer pricing and windfall utility profits clearly show that there is a breakdown in the energy-pricing structure, on top of the fact that variable-tariff energy is still sold at fixed-tariff prices. Normally, commodity pricing of energy does not cause problems, but crises make a nonsense of the market. Energy bought from an external market will inevitably be commodity-priced, but energy generated in the UK and consumed in the UK should be priced on an internal-market basis, as its costs will be unchanged.

We need a fair-profits internal energy market, in which costs of generation have not changed and the energy is consumed in the UK. This energy price (representing some 50 per cent of our energy use) would be stable and disconnected from any runaway commodity pricing. Much domestic energy may be from renewable sources and offers another reason for enlarging our installed base of renewable generation.

Meanwhile, gas and oil from UK sources should also be priced at an internal market price if it is not sold abroad. An internal energy market would stabilise the market.

Dr Mark Scibor-Rylski FIET

Committee Member, IET Innovation Management Technical Network

Dr Scibor-Rylski writes in greater detail about this subject and why it is so important in a column in our Comment section, ‘Why UK energy customers need to be able to make smart decisions’.

AI delivered what it was asked for

I found the AI-generated editor’s letter in the March issue of E&T to be of a reasonably good standard. Although there was a fair bit of repetition, it could believably have been written by a human. A couple of points though: the brief called for a 650‑word introduction and asked for the advantages and shortcomings of art made by artificial intelligence. The actual introduction was only about 470 words long, and made no mention of any shortcomings. Was it edited, or was this all that ChatGPT could come up with and also didn’t like to be too critical of its fellow AIs?

Graham Speirs CEng MIET


E&T Editor in Chief Dickon Ross replies: The 650 word count mentioned in the question was our human error and we had in fact requested 470 words, which is what ChatGTP fulfilled and we reproduced that unedited. My apologies for the mistake.

Parsons company history goes public

Sir Charles Parsons developed the world’s first steam-turbine generator in 1884, and in 1889 founded the company CA Parsons & Co Ltd (known later as NEI Parsons Ltd) which produced turbine-generators, transformers and other products for many power stations and for electricity distribution. Power stations that employed Parsons machines include Drax, the UK’s largest power station, and Calder Hall, the world’s first commercial nuclear power station.

The story of Sir Charles, his company and its daughter businesses has previously been recorded only up until he passed away in 1931. Since 2019, however, a major project has been under way to record the full history so that this is preserved for posterity in the Tyne & Wear Archive in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.

Work includes the development of the principal products over the years, the growth of the companies, details of manufacturing facilities, insight into the turbine generators employed at key power stations and similar information.

The stories are being collated in the form of photo story books, available on the Parsons Heritage Project’s Facebook page. There’s no limit to the scope of information or the number of photos that can be included – more than 25,000 photos in print form and an estimated 40,000 as negatives are being scanned, and thousands can be seen on the Facebook page already. The great majority have never been seen outside the Parsons companies before.

Geoff Horseman

Formerly head of turbine generator engineering at Parsons, now retired

Energy from cremation is not a subject for humour

I realise the ‘Evil Engineer’ article in the March 2023 issue of E&T about the feasibility of generating energy from human cremations was meant in jest; however, burning of bodies to be self-sufficient on a large scale was proven by Nazi Germany and Topf and Sons, the manufacturer of the ovens used in Auschwitz-II Birkenau, Buchenwald and other locations that were perfected over time to be more efficient. As the son of an Auschwitz Holocaust survivor (my father was Rudy Kennedy FIEE), who lost many relatives (my grandmother and aunt were murdered on arrival and my grandfather six weeks later, all burnt in the ovens) it wasn’t in the best possible taste.

Steve Karmeinsky MIET

By email

E&T Editor in Chief Dickon Ross replies: We apologise to any readers who felt offended by this article’s subject matter or treatment. We always think carefully about our articles but we will be more sensitive in future.

More about Alec Issigonis

Adding a little to your piece on Alec Issigonis in the March 2023 issue of E&T, in the mid-1950s he was chief engineer with Alvis, where among many innovations he designed a prototype 3-litre V8 with very advanced suspension. That car didn’t go into production, but it is interesting to note the design similarities between the drivetrain of the Mini and that of Alvis’ 1926 FWD cars.

Richard Bristowe MIET

By email

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