Old design, with the best of intentions, blocks new solutions

Recently, friend of mine bought a house near London which has quite a tidy sized stream running through the garden. Being possessed of a number of children, this friend is anxious to do something about climate change wherever and whenever he can. Being furthermore a rather gifted engineer and mathematician, he began to make the measurements and plans necessary to create his own hydroelectric power station in his own back garden-a noble aim indeed. He estimated a potential yield of 7000 kw per year- a useful contribution to running an electric car, to say the least.

Just like a government building a dam, he called in consulting engineers. And here come the problems. Installation costs-£50 000. Licence to proceed-£1500. And much, much more. Enough to make the eyes water of all but the richest, And however, ever, ever would you extract enough power to pay back the investment?

At this point, an unreflective person would throw up their hands, decry a brutal, inflexible bureaucracy, and perhaps turn to the comforts of alcohol.

If we are going to cure global warming, we must get everyone onside, welcome their new ideas, and help them to decentralise power production. Surely? Huh? Common sense, guvnor?

But as our man dug down, he realised the true explanation is deeper, and actually more problematic. The power grid systems of advanced countries were designed long ago, when electricity was pulsed out from huge central generating systems. The poor old cables will let you bleed off power, but they cannot cope when we are all feeding in from our little solar , hydro and biomass schemes. If local power is going to work, we shall have to dig out all those old cables, and put in new ones. And that will mean big bucks.

Developing countries who are still putting in their systems, should be able to avoid the worse of these sunk costs. Which means Britain will have to find the money from somewhere. Or fall behind.

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