Topic: Nature and Our World
Did you watch last night's "Question Time" from Edinburgh on BBC1? One of the questions was, "Would the panellists prefer either a wind turbine or a nuclear power station in their back yard"? I wonder what people in this country said when the first windmills were being built in the 12th century for milling grain? Were they a 'blot on the landscape' in the middle ages? Now we think that windmills are a picturesque addition to the landscape, like our own local mill up on Halnaker Hill, near Chichester. Some windmills have been lovingly restored to full working order such as High Salvington Mill near Worthing. I remember visiting that windmill with my sister in my late teens. It was being used as a tea room and we 'partook of the refreshments'. We were the only customers late that afternoon and the gentleman in charge was friendly and chatty. We admired the, at the time, somewhat derelict mill and asked how old it was. He invited us behind the scenes on a little tour of the building and showed us the old mill stone. I remember being invited to pull on a rope - he then told me that I had just lifted one ton! I was very impressed.
To get back to the question of wind turbines versus nuclear power stations; where practicable, I would choose the wind turbine generator every time. They are not as picturesque as windmills but, who cares! Initially, they are much cheaper to install and maintain then building a large nuclear power station and the amount of pollution and greenhouse gases they produce is negligible. Okay, so nuclear power can be very cheap to produce and creates no air pollution, until there is an accidental release of radioactivity, such as the Chernobyl disaster in 1986! Then there is the problem of the disposal of dangerous radioactive by-products, which can remain hazardous for thousands of years. Until, and if, we learn to properly harness nuclear fusion (combining atoms) instead of nuclear fission (splitting atoms), this will be the main drawback to nuclear power.
This debate raises a deeper concern. From the time of the Industrial Revolution, people in Europe have relied on fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum to produce energy. In many third world countries, they still rely on wood to cook and to keep warm. This unrelenting demand for natural and fossil fuels is stretching the planet's resources and alternative sources of energy must be found, and soon. One solution, is the harnessing of wind power, together with solar power and wave power. As long as our solar system exists, we shall have waves and winds and solar power, free energy to use without adding to the greenhouse effect we hear so much about. Since the advent of the car, the worldwide demand for petroleum has been steadily increasing and this rate of demand cannot be sustained for many more years. Today's oil fields will, eventually, run dry and humanity will be forced to find an alternative solution; perhaps electric or hybrid cars with petrol motors kicking in on motorways to start with. Research is also being undertaken into producing a car with hydrogen-powered fuel cells. This would be clean and sustainable, when they find a way of reducing the cost. Perhaps, one day, they will discover how to harness gravity or magnetism, who knows!
As a small child, I can remember asking my sister, Pauline, where petroleum and petrol came from. I knew it came from oil wells, but how had it got in the ground in the first place? At the time, her answer sounded quite plausible to me - dinosaur wee! Well, they were huge creatures and must have had huge bladders! Actually, the natural process which forms petroleum still continues today, as it was formed from plants and animals living in the warm seas that covered the earth millions of years ago. As they died, they piled up on the sea bottom, sunk under their own weight into the sea floor, eventually to be covered by tons of sand and mud. Under pressure, and over millions of years, this dead sludge gradually turned into dark liquid trapped in the pores of the earth. Some found its way into 'pockets', forming today's oil fields and, occasionally, oil rose to the surface creating sticky tar 'lakes', death traps for many prehistoric creatures. Early man made use of it to make torches, waterproof baskets or the seams of ancient ships. The Ancient Egyptians used bitumen to preserve their mummies; the Chinese used petroleum for heating and Red Indians used it as paint, fuel and medicine. Today, petroleum is refined or distilled to make petrol, paraffin, lubricants, waxes and asphalt. But the rate we use it up is much faster than the time it takes the earth to produce it and the truth is that it will probably run out in a hundred more years.
Unfortunately, the refinement and burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, releases sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide into the air, impurities which are a major cause of acid rain, together with large amounts of greenhouse gases, such as carbon monoxide. This is affecting our climate, our forests, our seas and our lakes. Society is irresponsible, too; we waste an enormous amount of energy - just look at all those neon advertisements signs you see in London or New York! Our street lights are wasteful, directing light in all directions instead of straight to the ground where it is needed.
All new houses should be better insulated and should incorporate solar roof panels. Why not have them on cars, too - they could boost the battery and perhaps even power a car for short urban shopping trips. More research should also go into developing a viable solar-powered oven for those third world communities currently relying on wood or camel dung for essential cooking purposes. We should be doing all this now - not leaving the problem for our great-grand children. If we don't do something about the pollution to the environment, about deforestation and over-fishing, the harm we are doing to our beautiful planet, to its bio-diversity and, ultimately, to humanity itself, could be permanent and lethal.