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Saturday, December 01, 2012

Saving Scotland's Shipyards - while feeding the world

  My latest article up on ThinkScotland - please put comments there - this is a proposal which could and if our politicians are useful, would, be made to work.
THIS WEEK THE NEWS broke that one of two Clydeside shipyards is threatened with closure. STV reported, "There are fears over the future of the BAE shipyards in Glasgow after the firm's UK chief executive hinted one of its manufacturing sites could close.

BAE operates three major manufacturing sites in the UK, at Govan and Scotstoun in Glasgow and in Portsmouth. The group employs about 3500 staff across its Glasgow shipyards and nearly 5000 at Portsmouth, although less than half are directly involved in shipbuilding.

An industry insider commented, "We will be making decisions this year, so we have a number of weeks in which to do that," and said, "There’s clearly a workload gap and even then it’s not clear if there’s enough work to sustain the three yards."

Labour's Jim Murphy MP, the shadow defence secretary, said: "We know for a fact independence would close the Scottish shipyards. The rest of UK would become a foreign country to Scotland and the UK Royal Navy has not built a warship in a foreign land in living memory."

Murphy is clearly right - from which it follows that if BAE has to take a decision to close before the 2014 independence referendum, unless it is absolutely sure Scotland will vote against, it will have no option but to close in Glasgow.

The only option I can see would be to provide the yards with some other project that would put off the day of decision for two years. That isn't an entirely libertarian attitude but I would go for it if there were a useful project the government (either Holyrood or UK) could underwrite. Something suitable for a high-tech yard used to one-off projects, but which has not been considered before. Not military, since they have already been bled enough over the aircraft carriers (and in any case, military projects are inherently very expensive and thus a bad way of doing job creation, or extension for two year programmes).

Obviously I have a thought. One I have dealt with before.

Build one Ocean Thermal Energy Converter (OTEC - pictured at top) as described in Marshall Savage's book The Millenium Project.

You don't need the entire floating island concept described in that book. Just one or two retired ships (of which there are thousands selling for scrap - how about HMS Ark Royal or an old ocean liner?) and a floating algae and/or fish farm. The OTEC draws up water from 3,000ft where, even at the equator, water temperature is always at 4 degrees and the power is generated from the heat differential with surface water. The bonus – and it is a massive one – is that nutrients in the sea sink to the bottom so that the bottom water is very fertile, needing only sunlight to grow algae - which can double in a few hours. Most of the world's fish come from the relatively few places where currents or temperature cause natural upwellings of bottom water so the potential is obviously massive.

The full island proposed in the book would have seven OTECs and house 100,000 people. It would cost about £1 billion but this proposal should be under £200 million (by comparison the aircraft carriers currently being built are going to come in beyond £5,000 million.)

Ascension Island
The sensible place to do it is within 5 degrees of the equator, the Doldrums, where because of the lack of coriolus forces which drive wind, there is no inconvenient weather and the heat differential is at its maximum.

Due north, within the 200 mile territorial limit of Ascension Island, which is British territory, would be geographically and politically ideal. There is a ridge of underground mountains, of which Ascension Island itself is obviously the highest, which rise close to 3,000ft to which a floating island could be anchored.

What is needed is a government charter authorising the building, occupation, ownership and regulatory status of this. Give it the regulatory status of the islands, of the non-floating type, that are still British - Bahamas, Caymans, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

I suspect that once it had been built and shown to have a permanent electricity supply, unlimited fresh water (another spin off of OTECs) a valuable industry and endless sunshine there would be investment money and more to expand it.

I'm not even sure our government would have to put up any finance, or even financial guarantees, once investors know it has government approval and the consequent protection under international law. Though the argument I started off with is that it would be worth such money just to keeps the option of these jobs open till the referendum.

What would be the effect on the referendum campaign?

Well if the jobs are retained until the referendum is held it would obviously provide encouragement to vote to keep the union - particularly if the money and therefore all the rights over future investment was put up from Westminster and the SNP in Holyrood ere churlish about making any contribution. (Even if they aren't it would be an example of teamwork.)

If the jobs are gone before the referendum it will equally obviously produce resentment and encourage a vote for separation - even if the SNP had played a part in preventing it by refusing to contribute.

In the long term it would provide us with a massive new industry and the world with a massive new source of high protein food or even of oil. It should be noted that lack of protien is endemic across subsaharan Africa. This lack, in childhood, seriously and permanently stunts growth handicapping the next generation across the continent.

Note that BAE has said it only has "a number of weeks" to decide so if this is to be, or at least done in time to save jobs, it must be deided quickly. Churchill used to write on his memorandum "action this day" and David Cameron told the CBI last week that fighting the economic recession is like fighting the Second World War. It would be shameful if a year from now or political classes had to admit the jobs had gone because they were now unable to take action within weeks.

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