Monday 27 February 2023

Tidal Power: A Mystery

Earlier in the month on a thread about hydrogen, somebody raised the topic of tidal energy and I said we'd cover that in a specific post.  I voiced my perennial puzzlement that no material progress has been made - anywhere in the world - towards effectively generating electricity from tidal power.  A breakthrough on this would be important for the UK particularly, as we have some of the greatest tidal ranges anywhere on the planet.  Why would we expect it to be a good energy source?  And what's gone wrong?  Here's some background.

The theory:  Tidal energy has been harnessed, for hundreds of years (there's an old tidal mill in Bow, East London).  Obviously, vast quantities of "free" energy are sloshing around when tides rise and fall tens of feet, regularly and reliably.  But can they be captured efficiently, and used to generate electricity - even if in a rather peaky profile?  You'd think so: there's not much that isn't known about tidal flows; and in the maritime nation that is the UK, we have longstanding expertise in marine engineering, civils, turbines and, since the 1960s, offshore installations.  What could be missing?

The practice:   Well, since tidal power schemes have been trialled in a stunning variety of different specific designs for 15 years or more, quite evidently a good design is what's missing.   Quite a lot of money, both public and private, has been thrown at this - much of it in benighted Wales, where anyone offering schemes that might generate jobs is pretty much given carte blanche, however dubious their credentials - to no practical avail.  Unless, that is, you consider it worthwhile to be able to rule out certain apparently prospective designs that have been tested and failed.

The scheme that made the most waves (if you'll excuse the idiom) is probably the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon.  The physics looked simple enough, and it was very energetically pushed by its promoter, one Mark Shorrock.  Choosing my words carefully, let's say that Shorrock is a showman and somehow persuaded a lot of folks in South Wales, not only to sign up for his elaborate PR schemes but to pitch in with their own money - from small punters putting in a few hundreds, to big players putting in millions.  Shorrock spent the lot, tens of millions in total, much of it going to, errr, himself by way of "management fees".  If it had gone ahead, his scheme was structured financially to yield him personally a vast sum upon completion - not completion of the project but of its financing package.  

Anyhow, after eight years or so of constantly rising costs he'd still failed to get several of the big regulatory approvals needed and the government called time on his application for public money.  (He now has a very large house in Gloucester ... and peddles solar panels in Vietnam.)

He never satisfied the marine authorities on critical matters like silting-up, and disturbing the flows (& wildlife) of the Severn Estuary.  He also came unstuck on wild claims like: if you have enough tidal lagoons situated at key points around the UK coast (he was "planning" five of his own), the regional variations in tidal peaks and troughs all balance themselves out and you get baseload electricity.  This was demonstrated to be, errr, Not True.

Other higher-tech schemes, like this whacky one, have shaken themselves to pieces when trialled at even small scale, and have been abandoned (after many millions of public money have been spent, and Welsh dreams shattered once again).

*   *   *   *   *

As a non-engineer I am bemused because, well, it all seems so logical.  The raw energy is there, alright.  Maybe we do simply await that really cunning design that squares all the circles.

Does anyone have a sound,  knock-down, science-and-engineering argument as to why tidal power is a chimera?   


Saturday 25 February 2023

Fateful Anniversary (2)

Here are some salient extracts from trenchant Russian nationalist milblogger Igor Strelkov's anniversary summing-up (based on MS machine translation with some variations of my own).  3, 5 and 7 are interesting.  Some of you will fairly claim to have been saying some of this yourselves - not least, point 8.  


It is not true that no one expected a protracted exhausting war. It is about this danger that your humble servant warned since 2015. Publicly and more than once. Trying to reach out to the inhabitants of the Planet of Pink Ponies.... 

The state of the "military industry" of the Russian Federation is such that we may soon have nothing to fight for a long, exhausting time ... without large-scale external support which only China can give ... 

This is unprofitable for us and fatal for them ... Conclusions: 

1. To defeat a large state, albeit in a half-dismantled condition [but which is being given] external support, won't be achieved by half-hearted measures. 

2. On the other hand, it will not be possible to defeat a large strong state [Russia] ... even with the help of a proxy [Ukraine].

3. ... the result of the war is determined not by radios with drones, not by money and iron, but by such boring things as the determination of the upper classes and the motivation of the lower classes. They allow you to get the above, and use it correctly. 

 4. Without civil society and a powerful media outlet, there is no way. Their role all these years has been sharply underestimated by us 

 5. The loss factor was overestimated by both sides. Modern society turned out to be much more ready to die than the United States of the 60s or the USSR of the 80s.

6 . Over the decades, military schools around the world have become degraded pre First World War state. And besides Verdun and Baranovichi**, they can't offer anything. 

7. Small and professional armies turned out to be a myth. As a result, without the whole population being engaged, they are meaningless, and the populations (on all sides) have not been taught or prepared for mobilization.  

8. Post-industrial society is good, but it was the war that showed that there is no way without industry. 


No one can back down. Neither the Coalition of the West, which has spent no less on Kiev than on Covid; nor us, who were left with no choice. So there will be a war. Long and positional in nature, with offensives of 5-10 km ... 

Our winter offensive did not take place, so what is chosen is a war of attrition. It's long and hard. And bloody. To understand - [Ukraine] can afford 0.5 million irretrievable losses without much stress. And so many more with the help of an overt dictatorship. To which the West will turn a blind eye. 

The only way to lose for [Russia] is through Internal Troubles. Just do not expect either good or bad - all this for a long time.

** a failed Russian offensive of WW1 


Friday 24 February 2023

The Fateful Anniversary

Last night, at the behest of our good friend Sackers, I watched All Quiet on the Western Front.  Impressive stuff and, being filmed before the invasion, not pointedly directed against any war in particular.  But avowedly anti-war, nonetheless, in an age when nobody seems to know much about history - the closing credits of the film state that, following the first few months of the conflict, WW1 settled down to positional warfare in which the front line never subsequently changed by much.  That's not even true of the Western Front, let alone the Eastern and Mediterranean theatres.  "Ain't gonna study war no more" ... ho, hum.

So it seems Putin can't muster a spectacular for the first anniversary, and he's settled for signaling it's to be an attritional strategy of assuming the West will lose interest.  Well, he's been making trite calculations about almost everything from the start, so why up his game now?   A rather telling symptom of just how badly the Russian army is placed, is the arrival in theatre of ... BTR-50s - considered obsolete when I started studying these things in the 1970s: as if the UK had dusted down some Humber 'pigs', the famous 1-ton Armoured.  T-34s can't be far behind.  Still, steel plate is steel plate, I suppose.

At the time of writing (12 noon, 24 Feb) the West is taking very seriously the latest story, that Russia is planning something based around Belarus: there's blanket air recce being conducted.  The Ukrainians suggest it'll be a false flag attack on Belarus by Russians disguised as Ukrainians to stir the former into joining hostilities.  Lukashenko will be trying to avoid this like the plague.  My guess would be that "pre-bunking" will do the trick here, and Putin won't get his convenient new northern front opened for him by his subservient neighbour.  So maybe it'll just be an anniversary round of attacks on civilian infrastructure.

Everyone, though, does indeed seem to be worrying about attrition and urging Ukraine to make its move.  Thus far, there has been pretty good judgement on strategic matters.  Hopefully, nothing rash results from this pressure.  One sometimes hears it argued: better freeze the conflict now rather than push Russia back to earlier (2022?  2014?  2013?) borders, because Putin or his successor will merely wait a few years, build up massively, then come pouring across the border again.  But this is empty: what treaty could Russia possibly be induced to sign tomorrow that they won't tear up when they are good and ready for Round 3?

The West has to reckon on taking unilateral measures to secure Ukraine against Round 3, whatever and whenever borders are next (temporarily) 'frozen', de facto or de jure.  Does Biden want to do this before the next election?  That maybe what will dictate the timing.

Still several hours of this anniversary day to go, and surprise is always surprise ...


Tuesday 21 February 2023

The Hydrogen thing - another polarised energy issue

No, nothing to do with anodes and cathodes: this is to do with vehement disagreements of a pseudo-scientific nature.  Recapping (on an issue we've touched on before, e.g. here and here):

The case for: (BTW, both sides of this "debate" accept future 'net zero' as a given)

  1. Theoretical: electrification of some current uses of fossil fuels is well-nigh impossible to envisage; but conversion to hydrogen-burning looks feasible
  2. Pragmatic / vested interests: this suits a lot of people very well - in particular the natural gas industries along the entire value chain, whose sunk costs are astronomical and whose risk of asset stranding looks quite real; and a load of engineers for whom the practicalities are well-understood, if a little challenging
  3. It's not difficult to see (or at least hypothesize) a future world where periodically there will be large amounts of 'spare' electricity generating capacity, e.g. when the wind is blowing strongly and demand is low: conversion into hydrogen for later use (maybe back into electricity again) might be a whole lot easier than building batteries that are big enough.  Every green advocate whose pet project is inflexible, potentially surplus electricity (nuke, solar) or negative-flex (wind) resorts to "you can always make hydrogen with it" as a fall-back 
Mostly by dint of 2. above, there has been a heap of effort going into this, not least in Germany (some of it bizarre, see links above) and now in the USA.  Initially this was private money - always a good sign - although now the subsidy-farmers are pitching in, busily persuading governments they'd better throw public money in as well.

The case against:

  1. The inefficiency of moving from electricity into hydrogen and back to electricity again is very great indeed (true)
  2. Dreams of there being lots of spare electricity of zero marginal value (or even sometimes negative) to make this economic are just that - dreams: electricity will almost always command a higher price than that, particularly when (ex hypothesi) vast swathes of heating and transportation load has been electrified
  3. Hydrogen is way too dangerous to be used in residential applications**
  4. Pragmatic / vested interests: labour unions dream of untold unionised jobs installing heat pumps and the vast home-adaption paraphernalia that accompanies them  - really quite labour intensive, a decades-long programme, and not a service they can easily be substituted for by robots
  5. Ideological:  we hate those old natural gas people, boo, hiss    

You can see how, what starts life as something of an ideology-free economic debate descends into left-vs-right mudslinging, the Left tending to view hydrogen as a wicked capitalist ramp.

Me?  As you've gathered, I'm always impressed when anyone forges ahead without waiting to garner subsidies: & that's exactly how the great hydrogen movement started.  But that moment has passed: the professional subsidy-farmers have taken over, just as A&R men move in on creative new talent in the pop industry.  And of course they are on both sides of the "debate", seeing as how there are subsidies available on both sides, too.  So now it's really difficult to tell what's good solid analysis and what's BS & hype.  

My guess is that:

  1. hydrogen for domestic use doesn't make much sense
  2. there will be specialised industrial applications where it does
  3. there will be odd, localised, maybe temporary situations where electricity really will be 'almost free' (e.g. in the middle of a remote hot place where there's no grid, plentiful solar and a big mining industry that currently uses a lot of diesel)
  4. it will be hard for hydrogen to compete as a means of strategic storage (via conversion) for electricity with other tools for balancing grids, even those with lots of wind capacity
But that's as far as I'd go.  Views?


** personally I wouldn't bet on that.  Electricity can be quite dangerous, too, and engineers are quite good at solving easily-defined physical problems.

Wednesday 15 February 2023

Nicola Sturgeon runs into reality

I really hope Sturgeon lives long to regret her ridiculous foray into woke social engineering on the trans self-ID nonsense.  Who knows, it might have contributed to whatever was the final straw for her.

It's crazy enough that it deserves to be a final-straw kind of thing.  Even with fancy verbal footwork ("this individual is a rapist" etc etc), reality is always there to stub the toes of those who take an idle kick at it.  Facts are facts: and despite no end of purposeful Newspeak formulations, enforced silences, cancellings and shibboleths, they ain't going away.  

Was it ever going to stick in a place like Glasgow?  JK Rowling vs N Sturgeon: an interesting match-up - and 1-0 to the former.  There's an easy win now for Sturgeon's successor - if they've got their wits about them.


Friday 10 February 2023

Weekend thread: ChatGTP created C@W

OK, hands up: this blog has been written by ever more sophisticated Predictive Text software since around 2010, culminating triumphantly in its present ChatGTP mode!  Suckers!! 

We've also used plagiarism-detection software on the BTL contributions, and fully half of you people are bots.  Who ever believed "E-K" or "Elby The Berserk" were real people??  (Congrats to *Mr Bill Quango MP*, whose "Virtual Constituency Office ®"  software has been successfully submitting plausible House of Commons expenses claims for over a decade now.)

Here's a great explainer of what's been at work below the surface.  A bit of maths is used in the presentation - but not really required to get the gist.  One or two surprises in there for me, not least the first big point this chap makes - that ChatGTP proceeds only word-by-word.

What else on the www do you reckon must have been bot-generated?  Is Liz Truss a bot from the Ayn Rand Foundation?  And will ChatGTP get swept away by the serious tech giants' competitor products?


Friday 3 February 2023

Chess, and warfare on the steppes

One of the features of Russian military thinking is how much it is geared to fighting on broad, open plains, with water-obstacles but not much in the way of topographic relief.  This makes warfare like chess: both sides can see the disposition of the other's forces: everything starts with silently glaring across the table, wondering what's to be the first move**.  As in any military planning, surprise is helpful: but it can be quite difficult to engineer it.  Russia produces a lot of very good chess players.

[Contrast this with Western military thinking and practice, based as it is on the hilly, and highly-populated topographies of western Europe and the USA.  Forests, towns, and above all hills, are generally available to make the enemy's task of figuring out what you are up to, just a bit more difficult.  Reconnaissance is often thought of in terms of what's happening on the the other side of the hill.  Wellington made a career out of conjuring up nasty surprises for his opponent using high ground to mask his manoeuvres (see his masterpiece at Salamanca, and most famously at Waterloo).]

With the steppes-based Russian thinking we've just rehearsed in mind: what did Soviet doctrine dictate for mounting a large-scale offensive?  The answer (see the Battle of Kursk) included any amount of preparation, intelligence gathering, secrecy, deception, bluff and disinformation, plus (importantly) the use of depth, which Russia has in abundance.  In very concrete terms, the later flowering of Soviet doctrine brought this all together in the concept of the operational manoeuvre group ('OMG', indeed!), a powerful, mobile ad hoc formation assembled just behind the front echelon in great secrecy so that it would not feature (qua identified formation) in the enemy's assessment of the Russian order of battle, and would emerge, suddenly and "from nowhere", to wreak havoc on the battlefield.

What's this got to do with 3rd Feb 2023?  Most commentators have been saying for a month or so now that Russia is likely to make a big new offensive soon - and 'soon' might be in time for the anniversary of Putin's lunatic "come-as-you-are, all over in 3 days" foray last year.  Just yesterday, the Russian Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media ordered the switching-off of all mobile phone comms in the Donbas.  (We know that Russian forces have been dependent on mobiles from the very start, Putin's hasty attack not bothering with the traditional matter of ensuring secure comms as part of the package.)  Now, comms falling silent is the classic signifier of an OMG being formed: all those big NATO air-recce sweeps of the Ukrainian theatre (there are 4 concurrently airborne as I write) are looking all the time for a 'nothingness of comms', inter alia.  They've probably just found one.

Thing is, Ukraine knows all this stuff, too (and probably practices it); and it really is all a bit more difficult with modern recce techniques.  Not least, the 'surprises from the depth' aspect becomes less of an element.  We await the first chess-move with trepidation.



** Negotiations in Russia are like this, too.  Long, long silences, punctuated by outbursts intended to disorient.