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Saturday, November 01, 2008


HVDC or high-voltage, direct current electric power transmission systems contrast with the more common alternating current systems as a means for the bulk transmission of electrical power.....Depending on voltage level and construction details, losses are quoted as about 3% per 1000 km. High-voltage direct current transmission allows efficient use of energy sources remote from load centers....Long undersea cables have a high capacitance. While this has minimal effect for DC transmission, the current required to charge and discharge the capacitance of the cable causes additional I2R power losses when the cable is carrying AC.....The disadvantages of HVDC are in conversion, switching and control. The required static inverters are expensive and have limited overload capacity. At smaller transmission distances the losses in the static inverters may be bigger than in an AC transmission line

Just as the national grid put together in the 1930s allowed major efficiencies in electricity distribution & increased supply & lower cost without a comparable increase in generating capacity the formation of an international grid, based on HVDC would do the same for the world.

Bearing in mind that so much of the cost is on the transformers it is quite surprising that most of the systems currently in use are about 100 km but looking at the list it is clear why - with the exceptions of a few in Scandinavia, links between France & its neighbours & a 1700km link between Mozambique & South Africa they are virtually all within a single country. By comparison if there were a line running round the world in the northern hemisphere, which would be about 25,000 km 3% losses would still mean that 70% of the power would reach the other side of the world. Compare this with the fact that within Scotland we lose 8% of our power to transmission losses while the pumped storage we already use returns only 75%.

The unit cost of the electric power, transmitted by d.c, shows only small increases when increasing transmission distance: for every additional 1000 km the increase is of the order of 0.15 to 0.26 kWh for transmission of 10 GW and 2.5 GW respectively.

How to get there from here: I suggest the setting up of an International Electricity Transmission Organisation like the International Civil Aviation Organisation a body authorised by the UN but controlled by professionals which "codifies the principles and techniques of international air navigation and fosters the planning and development of international air transport." Such a body would monitor common standards, negotiate usual charges for transmission of power, act as moderator in disputes & negotiation & monitor that what was said to be being put into the grid actually was. Clearly the fact that there are so few international lines, while air travel works efficiently, means that not having such a moderator is a problem.
The world's longest current cable is 1700 km across Zaire - which is 300 more than from Glasgow to Moscow so it is clear that such a grid is technically feasible. More famously the 3 Gorges dam's power is transferred from upland China 890 km to Guandong province which is beside & nearly as economically free as Hong Kong (& growing at about 20%)

Trade between nations in almost all goods is considered a good thing & relatively free trade has made us all wealthier. I have not been able to find prices of baseload electricity listed by nation but since price is determined by the point at which demand & supply meet & I have previously listed how much supply varies per unit of GNP (the UK needing 2.5 times more GNP per unit power than China) & assume price varies at least proportionately.

It may be argued that we would thus become dependent on Chinese or Russian electricity to produce our goods - but then of course we already are it is just that it is cheaper to produce them in China. If our homegrown electricity is grossly overpriced, which it is, not trading the stuff would not change but merely conceal the fact.

2 bonuses such a grid would produce:

Firstly there are many places where hydro power can be produced in great quantity (as with the Congo mentioned above which has 15 times as much water as flows through the Aswan dam) but where there is no economic demand. Northern Canada is full of lakes & run off from the Rockies & I am sure has capacity for many times what the Hoover dam produces, but very few locals to use it. The electricity produced by hydro is a multiple of the amount of water by the distance it falls & need have no close relationship to the cost of building it. We are regularly told that in Scotland we are set to be the "Saudi Arabia of Marine Power" from the Murray Firth & our northern coast. I have my doubts but if there is anything to it we should certainly make it easier to export the stuff. I have also seen "environmentalists" holding up long distance transmission as the reason we will not need nuclear to stop the lights going out.

Secondly, a bonus which is not just an expansion of the advantage of having a national grid is that in east/west transmission crosses time zones. The US, for example, has 4 time zones so that when demand is still at a peak at 10pm in one it is close to minimum at 2am across the country. This is of enormous use where the production is by nuclear reactors since they in particular produce constantly at a flat rate (coal is more efficient at a flat rate too though not so much so). Thus we could see Chinese coal power, produced at their midnight keeping the lights on in Europe & European nuclear returning the favour after our midnight.

If there were an international, minute by minute, spot market for electricity, probably hovering around 2.5p per kWh, all those with access to it would be much better off.

UPDATE Michael in comments has given this link which contains a whole lot of articles on on various forms of international grid (ignore that they have a picture of Gore the rest of it is pretty good).

Friday, October 31, 2008


The Adam Smith Institute has an intelligent answer to what to do about the BBC:

Those that defend the BBC as an institution that does things others won’t or can’t are wrong. A visit to the website of the subscription run HBO will suffice to dispel this illusion. Such innovative programming could be possible in this country, if only the BBC and regulations were not holding back competition.

So how should we proceed? In fact the solution is very simple and it goes by the name BBC Worldwide. BBC Worldwide is a subsidiary of the BBC whose profits are delivered back to the BBC, supplementing the Corporation's licence fee funding. During 2007/08 BBC Worldwide achieved sales of £916 million.

The current licence fee of £139.50 needs to be phased out. BBC Worldwide should be given more control over the BBC’s assets, competing on equal terms with its competitors. Within ten years the licence fee should be scrapped completely, with BBC Worldwide managing all of the BBC’s interests and the public liberated from paying for the abuses of oddities such as Brand and Ross

I agree. The BBC is a stultifying self satisfied influence in Britain. It is essentially the civil service's media arm always putting the answer to all questions as being more government spending, regulation & of course, regulators.

On Wednesday The Scotsman held a discussion, down the road from me on "the media" & I went along.

Media in the spotlight: the good, the bad and the ugly

OK they didn't ask my question about how much a genuine traditional debate on global warming would cost & I didn't get to mention the censorship of our government's involvement in dissecting living human beings so I may be a bit biased but I was not impressed. On the panel Margo MacDonald was, though unwell was sharp, amusing & clearly understood what the public want. It was she who pointed out that, though we used to be dismissive of much American programming it is now extremely well written (ok we mainly see the good shows but we always did). Bobby Hain, head of STV was clearly trying his best to make bricks without straw, STV having been hollowed out to little more than a rebroadcaster of ITV central programmes. He clearly understood that success depends on having money & that depends on attracting an audience, which he gave praise to Taggert which apparently is available in 70 countries (roughly 69 more than Jonathan Ross). John Archer of Scottish Screen, which is a government funded cinema development agency, something without which Hollywood seems to have managed. Worthy stuff even if he thinks "Merlin" is wonderful.

Maggie Cunningham was introduced as 1/2 of the boss of BBC Scotland - she does it as a jobshare. Now jobsharing has its place but not in running a go ahead organisation where decisive & quick decisionmaking is done - which is why she runs BBC Scotland. Nothing of particular interest but it was clear she did not have to worry about money or therefore of much in the way of an attempt to be popular.

On the Ross thing much of the anger is because there clear doubt that Ross or Brand are indeed the popular & "edgy" entertainers we are entitled to expect for our money or merely a couple of wankers whose faces fit. Personally I consider Jeremy Clarkson infinitely more entertaining & genuinely edgy in a way which obviously unsettles the BBC with their commitment to catastrophic warming - which is why it is so far back on the BBC website. More important than my opinion is that Clarkson not only has massive audiences even though he is on BBC 2 (there was great embarrassment when his programme got more viewers than the BBC's showpiece about warming on BBC 1 at the same time) but that he is syndicated worldwide & Ross isn't. It is also a matter of record that for years the BBC refused to produce Dr Who (or sell their rights in it) on the grounds that it was expensive to produce, despite the fact that it made a Major profit in syndication & publishing - but that was a different department.

This is why putting the BBC under the only department which exists to compete in the real world is the right thing to do.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Professor Stephen Salter (inventor of the Salter's Duck wavepower device which has been receiving government money since the 1970s on the promise that with just an extra few million more he will have a commercial generator) replied to my letter on the 23rd that I was dishonest:

Neil Craig (Letters, 23 October) gives a figure of 1.3p per kilowatt hour for the cost of French electricity. This is as dishonest as many of the statements of nuclear advocates. The French tariff is complicated and depends on your connection rating, the time of day and three different day "colours" announced day to day, depending on expected demand. An excellent explanation can be found on Google.

For the typical example of 3000kWh at the cheap rate, 2000kWh normal rate, plus the connection charge for 9kW, the total was 0.11 per kilowatt hour in 2004 . Can Mr Craig say where he got the 1.3p figure?

Well no I wasn't & though they asked me to cut my reply the Scotsman have published mine as their first letter today. Tightening it may have actually made it more hard hitting & after defending myself I still got to make half the letter a critique of the entire anti-nuclear case though I did have to drop an extraneous bit about how greenery is much of the reason why our economy is not growing like China's.

Professor Salter accuses me (letter 25th Oct) of being "dishonest" in saying that whereas our windmill power is being reduced from 9 to 8p per kwh the French equivalent is 1.3p & requests that I inform him where the figure came from. I was responding to a previous article in the Scotsman about a proposed reduction in wholesale windmill prices to the grid & gave the equivalent French price, to the grid. This came from the World Nuclear Organisation whose website lists the production cost of French nuclear as being 2.54 cents which does, or at least used to, correlate to slightly under 1.3p. Perhaps Professor Salter may wish to acknowledge his error in confusing retail prices with wholesale

Keeping the lights on is arguably the most important issue in British politics today. However bad the credit crunch may be it does not compare with what will happen when they go out. Nor is the fact that 24,000 pensioners have been dying, quite unnecessarily, every year from the effects of fuel poverty & that this is expected to nearly double this winter, an unimportant statistic.

As the previous LibDem leader said on TV "nuclear is the easy solution" going on to explain that it thus must be prevented from working otherwise the public could not be frightened into subsidising windmills. Professor Salter can confirm this since he was Nicol's co-speaker at the time.

Reactors can be built in 4 years, excluding paperwork & if we do not have them by 2015, when new EU emission controls will close so much conventional power, we will have massive blackouts.

French & other figures Expected fuel poverty deaths's remark

UPDATE This letter in today (Friday) shows I have been in error. I have been far to kind to the windmillers.

Neil Craig (Letters, 30 October) is correct to draw attention to Professor Stephen Salter's failure to understand the electricity prices he quoted for wind and French nuclear production.

But it is worse. The reduction of price from 9p to 8p per kWh refers only to the wholesale price at the wind "farm" gate or landfall. To this must be added 5.5p for the renewable obligation certificate, giving about 14p per kWh compared with the French 1.3p per kWh.

The politicians who crowed about a "9p to 8p reduction" were selling a half-truth.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008


This letter of mine is in the Herald today. It is a reply to this previous one.

Nick Dekker produces a well-argued but extremely optimistic letter (October 27) about our electricity supply.

Scotland may be using "only" five gigawatts of power, as he says, but we are also supplying another one to the Irish and English grids, and I doubt if either would let us break long-term contracts. Most of the 2.3GW from Peterhead is oil-fired and we simply cannot afford to keep it going. In any case, lack of transmission capacity would severely limit its ability to help us in the central belt. Wind farms only produce, on average, about 26% of their rated capacity, often less (hence the term average) and under the strictures of Murphy's Law would be unavailable in a mid-winter snowstorm when we needed it.

Most of the rest of his 6.5GW theoretical wind farm capacity is even more theoretical because it has not been built. Indeed, we have previously had the word of Scottish Renewables, hardly opponents of the concept, that wind farms cannot provide part of base load.

Pump storage is only useful if you have had 60% more spare capacity in the first place to pump it up. Hydro is valuable but its rated capacity is misleading, since any loch emptying water at maximum capacity will very quickly empty.

Ignoring these & the oil generator at Peterhead gives us a top capacity of just over 6GW for a peak demand, including export of 6GW.

Absolutely no problem whatsoever, then - so long as the ageing reactors at Hunterston and Torness never need repair, or if Longannet goes offline by accident, as it has previously, or, indeed, that previous peak demand is not exceeded in a cold winter.

And this takes no account of the fact that electricity usage goes up with economic growth - though I grant it looks like we may be spared economic success.

And it takes no account for the fact that all high-emission coal stations are to close in 2015, leaving us with blackouts, even without a growing economy.

It takes four years to build a new nuclear reactor, though even in England the government intends to first spend five years doing paperwork. We know that French nuclear designs can produce as much electricity as we want at 1.3p per kWh, because they have been doing so for decades. Our politicians, who know all this perfectly well, have been grossly irresponsible for decades.

We have recently seen politicians of all parties claim to be opposed to fuel poverty and the 24,000 pensioner deaths that it has caused each winter, even without blackouts or this year's prices. It is not possible for any of them to do that honestly while opposing the only practical way out of this unnecessary catastrophe.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


The Russians have done this experimentally with a satellite named Znamya.

FOR A FEW MINUTES LAST FEBRUARY,(in 1993) THE MOON HAD A RIVAL: A 66-foot-wide mirror of aluminum-coated plastic orbiting 220 miles above Earth. Before sailing over to the planet's sunny side, the mirror reflected a beam of sunlight that swept east from France to Belarus. The Russian scientists and engineers who launched the mirror claimed that the experiment--the first of its kind--was a success. An array of much larger mirrors, they say, could be used as a light source in remote areas like Siberia.

The mirror, called Znamya ("banner"), was just a few thousandths of an inch thick and weighted just over nine pounds. It was carried into space furled inside a drum stowed in a Progress supply vehicle. When the vehicle docked with the Russian space station Mir, cosmonauts from Mir maneuvered the drum into position just inside the docking port of the Progress pulled away from the space station, the mirror unwrapped around a central, spinning axle extending from the drum. Once unfurled, it looked a little like a flat umbrella.

For the six minutes during which ground crews kept it positioned to catch the sun's rays, Znamya shone a two-and-a-half-mile-wide beam of sunlight about as bright as a full moon down to a predawn Europe. The cosmonauts said they could see a faint circle of light racing over Earth's surface at 17,000 miles per hour. Although clouds covered much of Europe that morning, a few ground observers reported seeing a flash of light as the beam swept by.

Their next satellite failed to deploy properly & the programme was halted.

To do this as a permanent development would clearly require that we have a serious permanent presence in space able to deploy these things at a higher altitude & presumably at geosynchronous orbit if it is intended to permanently light one neighbourhood.

A two-and-a-half-mile-wide beam as strong as the full Moon isn't environment changing but for 9 pounds of tinfoil 66 feet wide it is impressive. The potential is obviously there to make some currently undesirable property pretty attractive.

Before somebody gets environmentalist about the global warming effect the cross sectional area of the Earth is 50 million square miles so you would need thousands of much larger mirrors to even increase sunlight across the Earth by 0.1% & if, centuries from now, we did, the same sort of tinfoil could be used for orbital shades. Such shades have also been suggested for solving catastrophic global warming & while that is perfectly possible I would rather get some evidence it actually happening before "solving" it.

Monday, October 27, 2008


What a globalised world where a Scottish blogger, most of whose readers are around the world, quotes a US Blog quoting an English newspaper, but here goes from a Jerry Pournelle reader quoting the Telegraph:

"Europe on the brink of currency crisis meltdown by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard" (The Telegraph)

"The latest data from the Bank for International Settlements shows that Western European banks hold almost all the exposure to the emerging market bubble, now busting with spectacular effect. They account for three-quarters of the total $4.7 trillion £2.96 trillion) in cross-border bank loans to Eastern Europe, Latin America and emerging Asia extended during the global credit boom – a sum that vastly exceeds the scale of both the US sub-prime and Alt-A debacles."

If any part of that paragraph is true it's not possible to assign limits to what will happen. One revelation at the time of the AIG collapse is that European commercial banks use much more leverage than American commercial banks. In terms of capital ratios they were more similar to the now failed Wall Street investment banks.

"Austria’s bank exposure to emerging markets is equal to 85pc of GDP – with a heavy concentration in Hungary, Ukraine, and Serbia – all now queuing up (with Belarus) for rescue packages from the International Monetary Fund. Exposure is 50pc of GDP for Switzerland, 25pc for Sweden, 24pc for the UK, and 23pc for Spain. The US figure is just 4pc. America is the staid old lady in this drama. Amazingly, Spanish banks alone have lent $316bn to Latin America, almost twice the lending by all US banks combined ($172bn) to what was once the US backyard."

That "staid old lady" US 4% refers to percentage of annual GDP. That means 4% of a $13 trillion GDP, or $500 billion. Losses presumably won't be 100%, so only a large fraction of $500 billion needs to be added to US financial institutions' other current capital losses.

Best Wishes,


If this is the case the amount that governments or indeed the IMF can put into bailouts is far less than enough to work. In which case better that they just let the chips be allowed to fall. Far better that than what Japan did when their property bubble burst - prop up bankrupt banks at the cost of preventing any growth in the real economy for 14 years.

Remember that the ability of real technology to create wealth is undiminished. The oil crisis, which seems to have started this, is over, without any effective government action but merely the price system stimulating the Canadians to exploit their tar sands & the rest of us to cut back. That had the potential to be a real crisis in productivity but solved itself (oil is now back down from $145 to $61.5 today) - though the ownership of some of the factors may change this crisis can only damage real wealth if we make it.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


The Telegraph letter on Alastair Darling's announcement to let spending rip to end the recession:

Further to your interview with Alistair Darling, we would like to dissent from the attempt to use a public works programme to spend the country's way out of recession.

It is misguided for the Government to believe that it knows how much specific sectors of the economy need to shrink and which will shrink "too rapidly" in a recession.

Thus the Government cannot know how to use an expansion in expenditure that would not risk seriously misallocating resources.

Furthermore, public expenditure has already risen very rapidly in recent years, and a further large rise would take the role of the state in many parts of the economy to such a dominant position that it would stunt the private sector's recovery once recession is past.

Occasional slowdowns are natural and necessary features of a market economy.

Insofar as they are to be managed at all, the best tools are monetary and not fiscal ones. It is inevitable that government expenditure and debt naturally rise in a recession but planned rises in government spending are misguided and discredited as a tool of economic management.

If this recession has features that demand more active fiscal policy, which is highly disputable, taxes should be cut. This would allow the market to determine which parts of the economy shrink and which flourish to replace them

Signed by a whole bunch of people that nobody on breakfast TV has ever heard of.

This is pure free market theory & actually overly generous to Darling.
As a supporter of X-Prizes I actually do believe it is possible for government, if it is sufficiently competent, to choose which parts of the economy have most potential to grow. Specifically good investment in transportation systems does tend to have a major influence on everything else in the economy - disproportionately more than average investments. Also investment in education purely for work (measured as adult male education) does so.

Beyond those however allowing the market to make the choices is wise for a competent government. In this case "monetary tools" means cutting interest rates, as John Redwood has been saying for a long time & even Vince Cable has recently started saying. Personally I would say putting it into cutting corporation tax would do even better (as in Ireland) because it is more directly targeted at the most productive parts of the economy.

Of course this critique is based on the theoretical assumption of competent government, which is why it is overly kind to Darling.

Our Chancellor has said specifically that the investment will go on new schools, hospitals & housing. The first 2 will not have any multiplier effect beyond employing builders. School roles are actually falling. Housing, if anything is worse since houses, at least at present prices, are a glut on the market & more of the same will just depress the rest of the market further.

Had he said the money should go on building nuclear power stations, improving roads, tunnels, X-Prizes, supporting the formation of new off site manufacturing of houses, & hiring retired tradesmen to run evening classes (or day classes, but the teachers unions wouldn't like it) I would think that probably a useful way to spend money even though we have to borrow it in the first place.

However the same or better effect could be obtained by just cutting the morass of government controls we have. We don't need government subsidies to build nuclear power we just need government to say it is allowed - tomorrow, not in 5 years after everybody has spent 5 years filling in paperwork. We don't need government subsidies to build houses we just need government to get off the backs of builders & let them build - a bridging loan guarantee to get mass modular construction going would be fine but if builders aren't forced to change their designs for every council & sometimes every house then mass production would get going anyway albeit a little more slowly. If we got rid of the 90% of the regulations & bureaucracy which has ensured the new Forth Bridge & Millennium Dome cost 13 times their real building cost then building, which accounts for a massive proportion of the economy, would take off without another 1p spent.

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