The reason why.
This is another guest article by Graeme No3, one of our regular contributing writers. As a reader, I do enjoy reading polymath commentary by someone who’s equally comfortable writing about diverse areas like industrial engineering and one or two of the more obscure byways of history, and can yet pick out the correlations between the two. Enjoy.
I have taken the title from Cecil Woodham-Smith’s book on the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean war. She assigns the disaster to the stupidity, incompetence and borderline sanity of Lord Cardigan, and also explores why he was not only allowed back into the British Army after being dismissed earlier as “unsuitable to command troops”, but promoted to high command.
“What the devil do you mean, sir, attacking a battery in front, contrary to all the usages of war and the customs of service?” was Lord Raglan’s question shortly after the disaster. One that was never answered, for all Cardigan knew of military matters was his regimental tight red trousers and playground drill. He retired in a huff to his luxury yacht for a warm bath and champagne and left his surviving troopers and their horses to starve or freeze to death. He later defended that inaction as “it wasn’t his responsibility”.
Although his incompetence was known by the Army authorities for years, it was ignored as apparently excusable in an Earl or perhaps it was felt that solving the problem would raise questions about the competence of the commanding aristocracy. The control of the military by the aristocracy was a strong belief held by the aristocracy, especially after parliamentary reform threatened their absolute control of civil life, and the lucrative appointments for their relatives.
They were terrified by the French Revolution, none more than Queen Adelaide who had lost several relatives in The Terror. One of the Duke of Wellington’s lesser known duties was to reassure Queen Adelaide during her periodic panic attacks that the Army would stand solidly behind the Monarchy. Even as late as 1848 he disposed 8,000 troops around London for the third Chartist Rally. The Chartists just wanted to deliver a petition en mass to Parliament calling for voting reform.
After Crimea and the bad publicity the authorities grudgingly admitted a problem existed and that they “would take action”. Political promises of action are made so all the fuss subsides and rarely solve the problem anyway.
Thus the “action” of the Aristocracy was to install the reactionary Duke of Cambridge as head of the Army, and independent of the War Office. A cousin of Queen Victoria, the Duke served as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army from 1856 to 1895. Deeply conservative and devoted to the old ways, he worked with the Queen to defeat or minimize every reform proposal, such as setting up a General Staff. The Army became a moribund and stagnant institution, lagging far behind France and Germany. “Lack of organization, ignorant and casual officers, inferior human material in the ranks” as well as “soldiers drilled to machine-like movements and lacking initiative”.
While Great Britain fought numerous wars they were usually against poorly armed and organized forces, although there were a few disasters such as Isandlwana, but these were ‘covered up’ by publicity about subsequent heroism such as Rorke’s Drift, much as Cardigan was turned into a gallant hero, until his arrogance disgusted the public. At least Cardigan was not allowed to command troops on active service again.
Some reforms were forced through and Parliament in 1870 made the Duke of Cambridge report to the War Office and abolished the custom of purchasing commissions which had done much to maintain elitism. The Duke strongly resented this move, a sentiment shared by a majority of officers, who would no longer be able to sell their commissions when they retired.
Pressures for reform built up as the Duke of Cambridge aged, and the Duke was forced to resign his post in November 1895. The Duke is today commemorated by an equestrian statue on Whitehall, somewhat ironically positioned outside the front door of the War Office that he so strongly resisted.
Not that the War Office was a bastion of efficiency. They managed to provide inferior artillery to that used against the Army in the Second Afghan war, and in the Boer War, and in the First World War. But they did design an improved cavalry sabre in time for WW1.
The army continued to be dominated by the reactionary upper class, indeed there was a mutiny among the officers just prior to the start of World War 1, which was notable for the disastrous efforts of Lord French and Earl Haig. The Army came out much changed and professional in its attitude, although the conversion of the Cavalry to mechanization in 1928 provoked agitated squeals from the residue of the aristocracy. It is true it entered WW2 under Lord Gort, but he knew what to do, rather better than he was given credit for at the time.
It is hard to imagine any authority behaving in the same way today, or have we become complacent? Have you noticed lately the frequent references to a ‘green economy’ – one that will bring lots of jobs and profits as the world moves into the “new economy”. It was comments by Baron Nicholas Stern that brought that story to mind, when he claimed that the “Green Economy” would boost the economy, deliver much new employment, and deliver a new clean future. Yet he is hardly alone in this view.
AGW propagandist after gullible believer cannot be let near a microphone or TV camera without launching into a paean of the wonders to come, if only we would believe. ‘Green energy’ will save the planet, wind turbines are the way of the future comes the cry, rather more frequently than they deliver noticeable amounts of electricity. That they will become cheaper and more reliable is the assumption never backed by much evidence, it is thought enough to cry “wind is free” so “wind electricity will be cheap”.
There is no doubt, no flexibility about the future. They want a “flexible grid”, a decentralized supply from wind turbines, solar PV panels, bio-mass burners and integrating other sources generating power from the ocean waves, currents and tides. All coal-fired power stations must be shut down to reduce emissions, along with their gas-fired equivalents and all the nuclear power stations. Should there be too much or too little electricity at any one time and place then inter-connectors will criss-cross Europe to bring electricity to everyone’s house.
Houses will be all-electric as wood, gas and oil fires will be banned as sources of CO2 emissions. Besides your new super-insulated house will be warmed and cooled by a heat pump drawing on circulation in pipes underneath the earth. Fresh air will be drawn into the house through a heat exchanger by an electric fan running most of the time. Sleeping with the window open will not be permitted.
Flexibility is the new code for storage. Green electricity advocates have, after 30 years of derision, suddenly discovered the need for STORAGE as a solution to all the problems they would wish on us. Their choice of variable sources of supply means that it is “feast or famine”. Solar panels never work at night, except occasionally if the subsidy is set too high, and wind turbines don’t supply anything for nearly a third of the time, and run at their supposed capacity no more than 1% of the time. Their supporters admit that on a yearly basis they will supply an average of about 25% (17% in Germany) of their nominal capacity, so those cries of bravado about X percent capacity installed are meaningless.
It is necessary to install 4 or 5 times as much nominal capacity to match a conventional source.
The ‘cure’ for wind turbines only delivering some of the time, is said to be solar as it works during the day whereas wind usually does in the night hours, except on still nights. It is apparently a secret that there are such things as clouds, so when it is cloudy solar output drops. Again the ‘answer’ is to install more panels – again the ‘feast or famine’ approach. The big problem is when the wind is favorable and output rises the grid is ‘flooded‘ with surplus power. Without storage the only answers to date have been to export it to some other country (cheaply) or to pay the owners to shut down the turbines at some exorbitant rate.
Lithium batteries will store any such unwanted surplus energy and release it when needed, or so it is claimed by those who haven’t calculated how many would be needed (or the cost). Quite why lithium batteries are necessary rather than the cheaper standard types is not explained, partly because they have no idea about the use of batteries and partly because to their minds lithium is “heap big ju-ju”. They’re willing to consider other devices, storage by compressed air or conversion into hydrogen, or ammonia or methane. The one thing all these methods have in common is that they are not currently available nor ever likely to be economically viable. Curiously the one method working (pumped storage in conjunction with hydro-electric) is rarely mentioned.
When it is pointed out that if a wind farm isn’t delivering then the next one won’t be either, this is countered with claims that “the wind is always blowing somewhere”. This is true but hardly helps a becalmed Europe if the wind is blowing nicely in Tahiti or South Africa. Study after study has shown that the weather across Europe is similar, so if there is a period of little wind one month in Scotland there will be no more in Germany. From Portugal to Finland “the wind is not always blowing somewhere”, or else when it is blowing all those extra turbines and solar panels will be delivering excess electricity all at once, and it will have to be stored or wasted.
Building this excess capacity is what will boost the economy of european countries with new industries like wind turbines and solar panels. It seems to have escaped them that in recent years “cheap” chinese PV cells have flooded the market and that most wind turbines now come from China or India, causing ‘going out of business’ sales from european producers. The declining capital cost should surely be reflected in a lowering in the cost of wind energy, but in spite of all the predictions this doesn’t seem to be happening. One reason is that all the best sites are taken and newer turbines are being installed in higher cost areas e.g. off-shore.
In defence of their claims it must be said that “renewables” from wind and solar have indeed become much cheaper, from astronomically expensive to merely ridiculously expensive.
Thanks to the flood of PV panels supplied from China the cost of generation dropped by about two-thirds from 2009 to 2014, and is now ONLY 4 times that from a coal-fired station, but cheaper than on-shore wind and much cheaper than off-shore wind or those tidal & wave power projects that catch the eye of those hopelessly deficient in arithmetic.
Wind turbines are presented with breathless, and thoughtless, PR releases as the way of the future, with lots of coloured pictures to disguise that they were abandoned in the eighteenth century as unreliable and unpredictable, and the abode of thieves. In that century the farmers in Brittany voted with their output by switching to tidal mills. They might have only operated twice in 24 hours, and at different times, but that predictability alone was enough to tip the balance against wind mills. The latter were too erratic in operation and output to depend on them for their living, let alone the tendency of the millers to ‘skim the output’ for their own profit. Windmills had their uses for pumping water from low-lying lands in the eighteenth century, and in the twentieth century as objets d’art in romantic sketches of Dutch canals.
The first wide-spread use of wind to generate electricity was in the mid-West of the USA in the nineteen twenties when farmers adopted a system that used a windmill to pump water into an overhead tank. Any excess water overflowed to the stock watering system. At the bottom of the tank a small turbine coupled to a generator could be used to charge a bank of batteries, which supplied electricity to the farm. The discharge went into the water supply. Thus the problem of variation in wind strength were ‘smoothed‘ by the storage in the tank, and should there be none further helped by the reserve in the batteries.
The flow of water, the original purpose of the windmill, wasn’t reduced, and the farmhouse had electric lighting and possibly a radio. So successful was this system that when connection to the expanding electricity grid was offered farmers rushed to join it and dump the old method. A large (for the time) wind turbine was installed in 1941 on Grandpa’s Knob in Vermont and ran, intermittently, until 1945. There were numerous mechanical problems but it generated for 4.4% of that time, before being blown down. After WW2 other countries like Denmark, Germany and France did research for short periods of disappointment. The UK trialled a unit at St. Albans in 1952 which didn’t work until 1957 when it was relocated to Algeria. Another turbine installed in Orkney operated intermittently due to mechanical problems. Enthusiasm faded among those supplying funding.
The pursuit of “the holy (and heavily subsidized) grail” continues and it must be said that whatever else, there has always been a renewable supply of the blindly optimistic. Solar power also has had a long and un-distinguished history of false hopes. From the trial of solvent driven water pumps in Egypt in 1913 (abandoned by 1915) to the debacle of Solyndra and the Abengoa collapse has been a Via Dolorosa for those paying for the dreams of the enthusiasts.
The modern enthusiasm dates from ‘the oil shock’ when prices soared in the seventies. Wind turbines were installed in all sorts of places with Denmark proving particularly susceptible. In 2015 wind supplied 41% of electricity generated in Denmark, but the claim that Denmark derives that much from wind overstates matters. From 2006 wind met as little as 5% of Denmark’s electricity consumption with an average over the next five years of 9.7%, and it is much the same today (for some reason politicians are now shy about releasing wind statistics).
With the highly intermittent supply Denmark has to keep their grid stable by exporting to neighbouring countries. Notably the Norwegians who are quite happy to buy wind electricity cheaply and export hydroelectricity at a much higher price. Denmark has the most expensive electricity in Europe.
That old viking habit of looting and pillaging is still alive.
On isolated islands dependent on diesel generators, wind turbines have been a partial success, cutting the consumption of oil. There are no examples of complete replacement, nor has it ever been thought advisable to remove the generators as they are needed to cover periods of unsuitable winds. That marginal success was enough for the new Green movement to push wind as a necessary part “the holy grail” of utilizing wind and sun, and gullible politicians didn’t hesitate to using taxes and electricity bills to raise their profile to “Saviour of the Planet”.
On larger islands with more people and heavy industry the results have been less successful; readers in the UK will recall that wind farms in the winters of 2010 and 2011 delivered very little due to calm but freezing weather. But in the winter of 2012 some had to be shut down because the winds were too strong. The good news is that the wind turbines produce least in June & July when less is needed and more in winter when it is. The bad news is that in 2011 to 2014 the variation in winter (Dec.- Feb.) month to month can be 20% and 40% year to year. February saw the output lower in every year so it fortunate that February is always warmer, isn’t it?
Very obviously any new “flexible grid” will indeed need to be flexible. Western societies have become accustomed in the last 70 odd years to a continuous reliable electricity supply, except when bombing each other, and there are some who raise doubts that this will continue. In the absence of large-scale electricity storage, any modern electricity system must continuously balance electricity supply and demand, because even small variations in system voltage and frequency can cause damage to modern electronic equipment and other electrical equipment. All will be well because your new electric car – the one with the lithium battery – will act as an additional reserve, and smart meters will allocate power as necessary.
Thus you get home and plug your car into the household supply so it can recharge in the early hours of the morning when demand for electricity is low. When Mr. Bloggs next door wants his dinner and there is a shortage of supply, your car battery (and lots of others) will be drawn on to make up the shortfall. In addition smart meters will connect to your ‘smart‘ appliances and will be able to shut down your refrigerator, or air conditioner or other heavy loads for short times to reduce demand. Further other ‘smart‘ appliances such as washing machines and clothes driers can be delayed until there is more power available later that night. Isn’t that ‘smart’?
You might object that there won’t be much reserve left in your car when you get home, and will Mr. Weatherall in No. 27 also wait for dinner? You very much doubt that Mrs. Rosencrantz in No. 32 will, and as for that Guildenstern fellow who always barges to the head queues – no way would he, so why should you? And you might find that having the washing machine start up at 1.30 a.m. just when you have finally got the baby to sleep is less than what you want. The last straw will be when you get your electricity bill, for all these ‘renewables’ are going to cost you a lot more unless they become cheaper than reliable conventional sources “real soon now”.
This might be the case though that claim has been made continuously since the mid-1980’s so you might wonder when it will happen, if ever.
You might also wonder who will pay for that new car, the new ‘smart’ appliances etc. That is easily answered – you will, because you won’t be given any choice. So you hope that the “wonderful flexible grid” won’t be here before you’ve gone. Don’t be too sure. Already coal and gas stations are shutting down as yet more wind turbines are installed. Other measures are being planned, as they have for some years now. There is talk, but only talk, of the necessary inter-connectors being built.
The French are shutting down much of their nuclear plant and replacing them with unpredictable wind turbines. The Germans have lots of wind turbines and even solar panels that put out some power in summer. It has led to their emissions rising because the backup is from coal-fired plants, and they have to run continuously as shutting them down and restarting them could take the best part of a week. The interruptions of renewables has priced the less emitting but more expensive gas plants out of the market, and several new ones are being dismantled and moved to countries not in the EU’s energy policy control.
You might, if you give the matter some thought, feel a bit uneasy about the future. Does it seem to you that there is a lack of coordination? Where is this electricity going to come from on a day with little wind? Why, from the inter-connectors of course! But inter-connectors don’t generate electricity, just move it. If Europe is becalmed, how much will be available? No problem say the Greens, just install solar panels on the roof and a household lithium battery which the panels will charge.
And how much will that cost?
Not much more than £30,000 – 36,000 for a days supply or somewhat more if you think that the sun might not shine every day – and assuming that the smart meters don’t suck your batteries dry. At this point I bet you are wishing you emigrated like all those industrial companies which went to countries with cheap electricity.
How did the UK get into this mess? Well, the decisions have and are being made by those who went from ‘the sort of school’ to the ‘right sort of University’ where they studied for an Arts Degree. Daddy’s money helped of course. These days Arts degrees don’t involve logical thinking, the emphasis is on memorizing the latest academic twaddle and parroting it fluently, so there is no need for these budding rulers to learn anything about electricity generation, or grids or indeed anything to do with industry.
On the other hand they are very fluent at sprouting twaddle. You can’t have everything you know, fluent upper class accents rarely come with grimy hands and practical experience in industry or commerce or even these days, real life.
And things are only going to get worse. As those turbines stop delivering the backup won’t be available from across the Channel, nor from either those unbuilt gas or nuclear plants, but from those expensive and polluting diesel generators scattered in their thousands around England’s (just clinging to survival) green and pleasant land. And how long will the EU permit that bizarre named Short Term Operating Reserve to operate when they release more emissions than the coal-fired stations shut down for doing just that?
Power will be rationed, and more than likely in the depths of winter when it is needed most, but least available. The cost of electricity will rise dramatically beyond the reach of many of the middle class. Tens of thousands of poorer Britons will have the choice of freezing or starving to death, for those super insulated houses can’t and won’t be built-in the few years before they are necessary.
Britain has a new commanding aristocracy. They have control of Parliament, and through the media, control of civil life, and the lucrative appointments for their relatives. And in their arrogance they assume that they know what they are doing and anyone questioning their competence is treated as a menace to that control. Once again Britain charges to disaster through the ignorance, incompetence and borderline sanity of those unfit to command.