Feel the power

English: One of the Maid of the Mist tour boat...

English: One of the Maid of the Mist tour boats approaching the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Français : Un bateau d’excursion approche de la Horseshoe Falls, du côté canadien des chutes du Niagara. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An experience I will never forget is seeing Niagara Falls for the first time. Although I heard it first, a kind of unrelenting thunder as the constant torrent of water crashed over into the basin below. As we approached, the noise grew and the falls only seemed more epic in scale. We saw them from several angles. Obviously, we had to approach them by boat on the Maid of the Mist. Although a hugely enjoyable trip, unfortunately to anyone wearing glasses, the visual fidelity is ruined by the ever present mist.

We heard a number of facts and figures whilst we were there, but I think the thing that impressed me most was the fact that the flow of water over the falls was virtually halved because of the hydroelectric power stations operating at the top of the falls. The fact that the sheer natural power we were witnessing was only operating at half strength astonished me. How much more impressive would the falls be if the power stations relaxed their grip on the river Niagara?

In power generation, it pays to think big. Watching an episode of a children’s educational program all about a hydroelectric power station under construction in Snowdonia, it struck me as ambitious in scope. The whole idea was to let the water from a lake at the top of a mountain fall through a huge turbine in the middle of a mountain in order to generate power. During the night, the water would be pumped back up to the lake using cheap off peak electricity.

I happened to visit the Dinorwig power station some time after construction was complete. Although there is a lot to do in Llanberis, a brief respite from the rain was very welcome as we took the coach deep into the heart of “Electric Mountain”. The fact that the drive into the mountain takes several minutes gives some idea of the scale of the operation. Eventually, we disembarked in the very heart of the cathedral like generating chamber. The huge turbines make such a racket, the very floor shakes.

More conventional power stations can also be a site to see. On a visit to Dungeness nuclear power station, I remember being impressed by the scale, but less impressed by the 1960s era control equipment. Once he had grasped the fundamental operation of the plant, my brother dismissed it as “just a giant kettle” and proceeded to tell us how bored he was every five minutes. I found it much more interesting, but I have to say it paled in comparison to the mother nature powered installations I would come to see.

There is something enticing about the idea of energy for nothing – certainly in these days of rising energy costs. There are some who say that the new three bladed wind turbines spraining up over our landscape are ugly. I like them, both aesthetically and philosophically. Those simple white structures standing like sentinels around the countryside whir away generating power from the primal force of the wind. I hope they build many more.

There are massive reserves of natural energy lying completely untapped. Research is going on into harnessing the power of the sea through tidal and wave machines. Scientists are developing large kites to fly in the jet stream where the wind is so much more powerful than on the surface. Just How long will it be before the world’s deserts are covered in arrays of solar panels silently generating all the power we will ever need?

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