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?


Let the sparks fly!


Electricity (Photo credit: elycefeliz)

If there is one thing that’s bound to bring out my patriotic and jingoistic side, it’s the design of the good old British electrical plug. There is something deeply satisfying about the solidity of the design. It slides home into a socket with a hefty thunk and all the nasty dangerous bits are nicely hidden away. To make things doubly safe, there is normally a switch and to make things safer still, there is a fuse and most devices have an earth cable.

As far as I can see, there are only two flaws with the design. Firstly, if you really wanted to be picky, they are a bit big. Probably more importantly, they can inflict serious damage on any poor soul who accidentally steps on an upturned plug. But compared to the overseas competition, the good old British plug is a masterpiece.

There is always a fear at the back of my mind that I am going to be electrocuted every time I plug in an electrical device into a foreign socket. They never seem to quite fit properly and tend to hang apologetically from the socket. More often than not, there will be some crackling, fizzing, the smell of ozone all accompanied by a small flash of light.

But the trouble with plugs is the sheer multiplicity of devices that need them. I’m sitting in my lounge typing this on my trusty macbook. The TV is on, fed by the Sky box. Beneath the TV set, there is an Apple TV box, a Nintendo Wii and a home theatre system. If you add to that the charger for my phone. That’s seven devices. I hope there are no burglars reading. On the other side of the room, you have the cable modem, a time machine, a phone and another laptop – four more devices.

The way that electricity is generated and supplied to the devices that need them is all a bit nineteenth century. Starting with generation – in order to produce electricity, we have a few windmills and the odd oxymoronic controlled nuclear explosion, but for the most part – we burn stuff.

In order to produce power, we burn various different forms of carbon based fuel to heat water. The water turns to steam which turns a turbine. The turbine generates electricity which we then pump into the national grid (which contains a vast plethora of devices that convert electricity from one form to another). Eventually after passing over loads of ugly pylons and through a substation to your house, it arrives at plugs. Unless your house has been rewired in the last five years, you won’t have enough of them and they will be in the wrong place.

If it sounds inefficient and archaic – it is. There simply has to be a better way. There is some promising research going on. Firstly, by using induction – you can eliminate plugs by placing specially adapted devices onto inductive plates to charge. There are even some commercial devices available. The other field that is showing promise is the transmission of power through microwaves.

I’m not sure I fancy being an early adopter for any of this stuff. The thought of my cat disappearing in a puff of fur because she happened to stand in the wrong place sounds a bit scary to me. But I am glad the research is going on. I also welcome any kind of initiative which removes our dependence on fossil fuels, but that is a really long journey.

And if you ever need to plug in a device in some far away land, hold it firmly, give a good solid shove and think of England.