Archive for August, 2016

William Smith

August 29, 2016
The geological map of the UK is now available as an app. The first version was created by William Smith and was considerably more difficult to obtain.

The geological map of the UK is now available as an app. The first version was created by William Smith and was considerably more difficult to obtain.

Apologies for the lack of blog articles, but it has been a busy and difficult summer and despite my best efforts, anxiety levels have been high.

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News that the Earth has entered a new geological era – the Anthropocene – should cause us all to reflect a little.

[Reflect]

Personally, the news adds to my general sense of anxiety.

But the news reminded me of my summer holiday this year, spent in rural isolation near the lonely village of Churchill, in Oxfordshire.

The village was the birthplace of the astonishing William Smith, the man who created the first geological map of England.

On our first day of adventuring  we came across a small museum dedicated to his memory. By chance they had the very readable biography (The Map that Changed the World) for sale.

One of the pleasures of the biography was to read about a topic so profound, and one of which I was so profoundly ignorant.

 

 

I had been dimly aware of the map previously. I had noticed it when I was honoured in November 2014 to address the London Petrophysical Society  at the Geological Society’s premises in Burlington Arcade.

The map hangs on the wall to the right of the main hallway beyond the reception desk. I was so impressed that I asked for a copy for Christmas that year, but I think my wife thought it might be a bit too big 😦

Just seeing the map, I had enjoyed its grandeur. But reading about its creation was awe-inspiring.

Smith worked as a surveyor and was fortunate enough (!) to descend down shafts in mines separated by just a few miles.

He noticed that the very obvious strata which the miners used to locate the coal were similar in different mines, but that they occurred at different depths.

He was then employed to build a canal, and was amongst the first people to cut open a slot in the Earth many miles long. This time he noticed that surface rocks changed from one location to another.

Piecing these experiences together allowed him to realise the three-dimensional layer structure of the Earth beneath the surface of England.

He realised that the strata were originally laid down horizontally, but were now slightly tilted, and that this explained both the surface and sub-surface observations.

There was one more clue that helped him piece together the confusing strata encountered in different places: fossils. He realised that the type of fossil in each layer formed a unique identifier for that layer.

With these insights, and a prodigious amount of energy, he travelled the length and breadth of the country constructing his grand map, the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

The map is in someways akin to the periodic table.

The periodic table contains chemical information, but more importantly than the information it contains, it provides a structure and a context that gives meaning to all chemical information.

Similarly, William Smith’s map contains geological information, but more importantly it provided a framework for understanding all geological information.

Imagine discovering that the fossils collected at Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast were of the same type as those collected in Lyme Regis on the South coast!

Who would have connected the two places before Smith traced the layer of rock across the whole of England? But after he had made the connection, and after you have seen the map, the connections seem almost obvious.

As I read of William Smith’s travails, I reflected that despite the enclosed fields and the robotic harvesters, the countryside hereabouts would probably have been recognisable to Smith if he could re-visit now.

And I wondered how he would react to news that the Anthropocene layer had begun.

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P.S. The Geological Map is now downloadable as an app called iGeology.

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[August 29th 2016: Weight this morning 72.9 kg: Anxiety: Very High]

 

Hinkley C: An alternative response

August 1, 2016

My earlier article on Hinkley Point C received a well-conceived and written response that deserves to be somewhere better than a comment page: here it is:

Hi Michael,
I am no economist either but I will make a few comments on your article about the Hinkley C project. Your conclusion is that overall the project is neither the best thing nor the worst thing could do and therefore sort of Ok. This rather equivocal judgement is made on the basis that the ongoing cost (of £1.15 billion p.a. for 35 years) is probably worth the price because it frees the UK government is from any upfront investment or later costs due to failure or delays. I think this is a very naive view.

This project aims to provide at least 7% of the nation’s power. As far as I am aware the UK government has no Plan B to meet this energy gap. This makes the Hinkley Point C scheme simply “too big to fail”. And if it falters or fails it will be for the UK government to salvage it regardless of contracts agreed at the beginning. The deals will be renegotiated when problems arise and the government / nation needs this power so it cannot just walk away or buy an alternative power station off the shelf.

The situation strikes me as analogous to the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) used to build public sector infrastructure for the last few years. This was sold as a wonderful risk free way of financing new hospitals and schools by using the private sector. Certainly new infrastructure has been built (though often not what was wanted) but at enormous cost which will cripple the public sector for decades. The scheme was devised to avoid government borrowing (even though the costs of this are much lower that for the private sector) but still has to be paid for year in & year out. (It is estimated that the UK owes £222 billion to banks & businesses via the PFI. (The Independent 11 April 2015)

By seeking to avoid public borrowing to finance Hinkley C the government has made a political and ideological choice which reduces it’s control (through lack of ownership), inflates the cost (even if kicked a few decades into the future) and does nothing to reduce the risks (because the government / nation really needs this energy so has no choice but to stick with it).

Best Wishes
Charlie

PS
It is also the case that the UK government has explicitly underwritten £2 billion of costs through the Treasury’s (infrastructure) Guarantee Scheme. This was announced by George Osbourne on a visit to China in September 2015 as an incentive to get the Chinese to invest in the project. EDF itself, in its own press release on the deal refers to “further amounts [being] potentially available in the longer-term.” So there is real chance that the UK government will increase the amount of the project it will explicitly underwrite.

I basically agree with everything you are saying. And if I had had the time I might already have written some of it myself.

However the point of the article was that in narrowly financial terms, this deal isn’t as insane as it is being made to sound.

Concerning Plans A and B, here are some other thoughts.

  • If we want nuclear power, then the current EDF design is one of the very few options available. The real missed opportunity here is that the decision to build was delayed so long that the option for using UK technology was lost.
  • Like you, I find the government’s aversion towards state ownership bizarre. How can it be OK for foreign governments to own our infrastructure, but not the UK government? That is just bonkers. As you say, if this is critical infrastructure then the owners of the infrastructure – the Chinese and French governments – will be able to hold us to ransom in the future.
  • Assuming the project goes ahead, then – taking a positive view – the government will have freed up the capital resources to invest in what I think is the real challenge facing us: integrating energy storage into our generating mix. But that is a story for another evening.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Michael

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[August 1st  2016: Weight this morning 73.4 kg: Anxiety: Very High]


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