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Motion, Midges and the Magician of the North
By Danny Crossley
Review of "Water and wind: Can renewables deliver?", a panel debate held at Cragside, 19th June 2013

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Could any place or time of year have been more befitting for a debate on renewable energy than the fairy castle of the magician and scientist, Lord Armstrong at Cragside? It was a marriage of art and science. Two days from the summer solstice, one could not wish for more beautiful scenery. Lakes in forests ordered by the hand of man delivered energy to light up the whole estate, electricity through water.

The aqueous solutions that we were pondering had been developed 150 years earlier when coal was plentiful at the height of the industrial revolution. The genius whose influence irrigated the North East had foreseen it all.

We were re-enacting the same debate in the magician's palace 113 years after his death at the age of ninety. One couldn't help but be impressed by the stuffed birds, the collections of shells in curved glass cases, the ornate brass light fittings now lit by energy-saving L.E.D.s and the regal furniture, paintings and Persian carpets, for he had entertained royalty here.

The cameras I helped to set up seemed an anachronistic affront to their grandiloquence. I was there interviewing as part of the film crew of The Great Debate. However, as I gazed in admiration at the noble straight nose and high forehead of the white marble bust, I recalled that here was living science sustained by its high priests and magicians in the present temple assembled.

Chaired by Dr. Caspar Hewett — himself an engineer and Director of The Great Debate —the panel consisted of three experts in renewable energy, with an introductory talk by Andrew Sawyer, a.k.a. The Soul of Cragside. He was once Parks' Foreman at Saltwell Park, which I live near to, so that became a subject of common interest.

He took us through the history of our setting, animating the era with the enchantment of a magical story being told to wide-eyed children. Complexity became simplicity. Darkness became light. He took us inside Armstrong's house and mind, depicting him as a solicitor sitting by a water wheel and noting the water wastefully splashing around the sides of the open paddles until he came up with the idea of enclosing it. Thus was born Armstrong the engineer and the Rotary Hydraulic engine. Function and beauty was how Andrew summed it up.

Disbelieving anything could be perfect, I asked him if there had been any problems. The pipes were of cast iron, there was water flowing through them: did they not rust? Andrew assured us that the one in the photograph he had shown us was still intact after 150 years. Were there no occasions where electricity met its old enemy: the water that generated it flowing in the same ducts, or no fires? None was recorded, he said, even quoting from contemporary logs. Surely this was the greatest testimony to the standard of engineering rather than the practice so prevalent today of covering up mistakes and accidents, or pretending they didn't happen, or saying that lessons must be learned but never are?

The first speaker was a Teaching Fellow in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University with the delightful name of Cat Button. She explained micro-hydro projects to us clearly and knowledgeably. Micro-hydro projects use small dams and can deliver power generated by water wheels almost anywhere where there is a river and energy is needed. Cat chose one on the River Wear as an illustration. Such schemes would be ideal for small rural communities, providing they have a river, I thought. I was intrigued by the possibilities this opens up.

In contrast, the scale of the projects in the next speaker's portfolio was huge. Jonathan Hughes is Senior Engineer responsible for Reliability and Validation at the National Renewable Energy Centre (NaREC) in Blyth. He spoke clearly and eloquently on his subject, necessarily leaving out a lot of detail due to time constraints, which was a shame because I enjoyed listening to him. He produced a bar chart showing variations in energy usage by source throughout the year. He briefly described a few projects, such as the 3MW Drive Train, the testing of large-scale turbines, Project Oyster, the Snapper, which was a kind of buffer to smooth out the energy generated by waves, the Severn Tidal Fence and the Pelton Wheel —all in eight minutes!

The last speaker, Richard Murray, Head of Wastewater Operations for Northumbrian Water, tackles the unenviable problem of getting energy from sewage sludge while trying to avoid upsetting the neighbours! He spoke in accessible, down-to-earth language about the sewage treatment process and various processes for obtaining energy from sludge, such as anaerobic digestion (the breakdown of sewage by micro-organisms without oxygen) and Thermal Hydrolysis (releasing energy from cells in sewage by boiling it, to put it crudely).

The Questions and Answers interludes were regulated by Caspar, who allowed ample and equitable opportunity within the time we had for points from the audience to be raised and discussed and gave the panel the opportunity to discuss their points of view amongst themselves.

I was intrigued by a question asked by David Goodacre, a director of the Great North Festival, about why the old-fashioned windmills had four sails whereas the modern wind turbines had only three. Jonathan Hughes began giving an answer, but he didn't get the chance to finish it, because it was answered by a member of the audience.

I wanted to interview Jonathan because I had seen a talk he had given on renewable energy on YouTube for a previous event and was impressed with his style. In the video he displayed a bar chart showing where we get our energy from. In the video, he said we rely on coal for 47% of it and gas for 25%, a lot of which has to be imported. He suggested bringing these proportions down to 5% each in order to reduce our reliance on imported fuel and making up most of the shortfall with renewable energy sources. This would include 20% from Biofuels, 20% from wind but only 8% from marine renewables (which I took to include wave power). Renewable energy from water did not feature significantly in the YouTube proposal, so I asked him how these percentages were arrived at and what happens when the experts cannot agree. This was prompted also by another YouTube video I had watched of Sally Poxon, also from NaREC, in which she proposed that 50% of renewable energy come from wind power.

Jonathan said that there was disagreement and that it was influenced by other factors such as environmental and political considerations. He came back to the question of the number of blades on a wind turbine as a nice example, saying the standard for that had been set whereas there was still controversy over the optimal number of blades in wave turbines.

At the end of the debate I interviewed him outside but wish I hadn't because I have never been so badly bitten by midges in my life. My hand was black with them, they were in my eyes and mouth and it felt like being stabbed by thousands of red-hot daggers at once. It felt like thousands of them crawling across my face.

Jonathan distinguished himself by completely ignoring them as he was answering my questions in front of the camera. Even Arron (on camera) was blinded by them. We were both amazed by Jonathan's coolness. He kept a straight face throughout, not even blinking and just articulated everything he wanted to say in the midst of this midge hell as though he were in the midst of comfort. Bear that in mind as you watch it! My hat goes off to him.

The midges were so keen on us they followed us onto the coach back. I was worried in case the driver got distracted, but they seemed to disappear long before we got back to Newcastle. Perhaps they didn't like Geordieland! I remember before I got back on the coach I had a questionnaire to fill in and was being bitten so much that I couldn't fill it out. It made me wonder why hadn't Lord Armstrong or anybody else managed to get rid of them? Surely that isn't beyond science?

Danny Crossley,June 2013

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© D Crossley, 2013