Selling Power

It was recently announced that France had won the honour of basing the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) project on its soil. About time too. The two contenders, France and Japan, had been fighting it out for the project. In the end, Japan conceded due to favourable terms (20% of the project team will be Japanese and they’ll pay less than everyone else) rather than actually losing. Lord knows how long the stalemate would have continued otherwise. It’s great news nonetheless. Iter will be building the first commercial scale fusion reactor. Sounds cool already. Fusion involves getting power by joining atoms together rather than blowing them apart as the more conventional fission does. This is the source of energy that powers the sun. To do it here on Earth requires immense amounts of heat and pressure. The benefits are simple: vast amounts of relatively clean energy (fusion produces much lower-level radioactive material as a by-product).

Energy is very much back on the global agenda at the moment. With the price of oil going through the roof and supplies of practically all fossil fuels dwindling (coal mining may actually become feasible in the UK again soon), not to mention a growing demand for power in almost every country, the hunt for solutions is on. Nuclear power has slowly been put back on the table in recent years due to commitments on carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, the US is positively in favour of them (populace included). Europe has been somewhat more cagey about nuclear power, possibly because we’ve been closer to some of the problems. In recent months, however, the Swedish have started to wonder about it, Finland has said it will be building a new plant and even the UK has tabled it as a possibility. The problem is that no one can see an alternative that will be ready to rumble in the next decade. Wind and tidal are still in the early stages and they have limited locations (not to mention meeting resistance).

There are alternatives though. The UK got its first slurry-powered station not so long ago for example. Australian scientists found ways of making power from surplice bananas. Many countries burn waste material. I’ve discussed some of my thoughts on this before. A friend of mine even mentioned he would like to build a small dam to provide power (and him with a retirement fund), I thought he was mad at first, but maybe it’s not such a bad idea. It was a recent story (on the radio) about some innovative companies that had used solar power to solve problems in remote African locations that set me thinking. One of the devices was a solar-powered fridge that allowed medical facilities to keep vaccines at the required temperature (between 0 and 8 degrees C). Even facilities that had power found it to be unreliable and were at risk of the vaccines (which are very expensive) being made less effective or possibly completely useless.

Solar power is still pretty expensive and obviously, works best in sunny climates. That stands the UK at something of a disadvantage. Sun isn’t one of our major assets. Africa, on the other hand, has plenty of it. It also has lots of open spaces too, something else that solar power benefits from. So why can’t we arrange for African nations to have large solar power-plants and sell the power back to developed countries that can’t get enough? Okay, getting it here is a bit of a problem. It’s a long way and, unlike oil, electricity does get drained as it travels along a wire. North Africa isn’t too far away though. The UK already imports energy from France, it’s only a short hop across the Med to Africa. It could be a solution to Europe’s energy crisis and Africa’s money troubles.

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