In Search of Techne

Ch 4.2: The 1970s and the Energy Crisis

(c) Roy Johnston 1999

(comments to

The following sequence of essays, critiques and comments illustrates the reaction of the Irish market to the major oil price-rise of 1973. The pre-Yom Kippur war interventions were based on a conservationist instinct and a feel for thermodynamics, rather than prescience.

October 21 1970

There has come my way a report from the EEC which surveys its needs for uranium up to the year 2000. Following the usual ways of economists, it deals in projections and growth-rates.

It emerges that something between 326 and 525 thousand tonnes of of uranium metal will be required by the EEC alone between now and the year 2000. This excludes the UK, the US and other major users.

This is to be compared with the 1969 known 'free world' reserves: 650 thousand tonnes of metal available from prime ore, defined as exploitable at cost less than eight to ten dollars per pound of sesquioxide..

Granted, known reserves tend to increase, and production costs can go down. Indeed, the known reserves increased by 50% between 1963 and 1969. However there does emerge some indication of the way in which reserves of available fossilised energy are being squandered at a rate which to someone like myself, who hopes to live to see the year 2000, is quite frightening.

Even more worrying is the fate of all this uranium. Instead of enriching the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, to the benefit of plant life(a), as does coal, oil etc, uranium ends up as a mess of highly radioactive 'fission products' composed of a wide range of elements scattered around the middle of the periodic table; many are biologically active. The present practice is to put this stuff down disused coal-mines, or to sink it to the bottom of the sea in concrete containers. The only clean way to dispose of the stuff is to put it on a rocket and send it back to the sun, for re-processing in the primary nuclear melting-pot.

The ESB is planning to join the nuclear power club towards the end of the seventies. They are already beginning to staff up, to the extent of employing a health physicist, and sending some engineers away for training. Viewed in pure economic terms they are acting correctly(b). Yet this presents an opportunity for giving a lead to other small nations, by promoting the idea of an association for resisting the blandishments of the nuclear power salesmen, and calling for a long-term world fuel policy, under United Nations control.

The essence of such a policy would be conservation of all expendable fuels on a long-term programme, and the development of systems for using the solar energy which is so abundant in the tropics. All advanced-technology know-how could then be concentrated on the hydrogen-fusion problem, and we could opt out of the whole dirty uranium fission business.

Harnessing thermonuclear energy is intrinsically a far better method of getting energy out of matter. Apart from being nature's own method (it is what makes the sun to shine), it has the great advantage that the 'ash' is merely lithium; this is not only not radioactive, but it is even useful. Because the only means for containing the hot plasma(7) is a strong magnetic field, the possibility exists of transforming the work done by the thermonuclear reaction directly into electrical energy. Unfortunately there are many serious technical problems that have not yet been solved. The hydrogen fusion reaction, however, is our only long-term energy source apart from sunshine; it therefore deserves to be given high research priority. Sunshine as energy is rather dilute and costly to concentrate.....

November 22 1972

...J P Byrne's lecture(1) the Institution of Engineers of Ireland on November 9....must have caused a flurry because it makes some very radical and, in my opinion, valid criticisms of the ESB.

J P Bryne is in the UCD Faculty of Commerce; he is an engineer by training but did a higher degree in business administration. He is therefore in a good position to criticise a system which to date has been dominated by engineers, and to apply business criteria meaningfully with social profitability as goal.

The Byrne thesis is that the rate of expansion of electricity supply, at 10-11%, is too high, that the ESB is 'chasing the peak' and is pricing its product in such a way as to encourage the development of peaky loads, while penalising steady loads.

He points out that eight or nine times as much capital is required to produce a unit of electricity as compared to an equivalent unit of bottled gas, and four or five times as compared to town gas, and that about 15% of all new capital invested in the public sector, or 14% of that invested in manufacturing industry, is soaked up for expansion of electricity services.

In order to cut back the growth rate from 11% to 5% per annum, thereby saving some 12-17 Mpounds of capital, Byrne proposes:

(a) drastic revision of the tariff structure such as to penalise peaky loads, eg domestic cooking;

(b) abolition of the practice of subsidising consumption through the sale of appliances at cost price;

(c) abolition of discriminatory charges which favour installation of peak-load orientated equipment by builders of new houses.

This adds up to the handing over as much as possible of the market for controlled heat to bottled and town gas, and the retaining of electricity for use where it is most suited, ie light and motive power.

This reinforces a view that I personally have held for decades, based on the fundamentals of thermodynamics. The conversion of heat into the form of highly-ordered energy and back again into heat involves a fundamental waste of about two-thirds of the heat, and is thermodynamic madness. The Byrne thesis deserves serious consideration.

December 6 1972

The November issue of the Engineers' Journal features an article by Peter Byrne(2), Secretary of the Electrical Division of the IEI, on District Heating.

This important article should be studied by architects and those concerned with the planning of housing schemes. In many cases it is possible to use waste heat from a power station as a virtually free source of domestic or industrial heating, if proper consideration is given to the question at design-time. Not only is the national fuel economy improved, but also the amount of SO2 emitted into the air is substantially reduced, individual oil-fired or coal-fired systems being the worst offenders in this respect.

...The prime market of the Engineers' Journal is among the members of the IEI.....if ideas like this are to be spread outside an inner circle of professionals, either the articles promoting them should be written elsewhere, or the Journal needs a more outward-looking marketing policy.

I can imagine interesting repercussions if as a result of a seminar by Peter Byrne, a tenants' or residents' association were to be invited to trade free heat for proximity to a power-station. There might be some takers for this slightly mischievous proposal in, say, Sandymount?

January 24 1973

The IEI Electrical Division presented on January 11 a lecture by JD Gurney and FA Abbott on Heat Recovery and Total Energy Systems to a packed house of over 200 in the College of Technology, Bolton St.

It was the first combined meeting with the Institution of Heating and Ventilating Engineers (Irish Branch); the attendance included a representative group of consulting engineers, architects and contractors.

The Chairman, J V Tierney stated that the large attendance demonstrated ...considerable interest.....and that it was mainly the responsibility of engineers to ensure that resoures...were efficiently conserved.....

A further meeting on this topic is scheduled to take place in ...Cork....when a resume of his Dublin paper will be given by Peter Byrne...this will be followed by a panel discussion on all aspects of 'total energy'....

February 7 1973

It is good to see the research people in the major electrical companies looking ahead to the lean years of fuel scarcity. (People who are now madly rushing in to oil-fired central heating will in all probability live to regret it.)

Philips have discovered in their Aachen research laboratories a range of eutectic mixtures of metal fluorides which have extremely high heats of fusion, with melting points in the range 632-832 degrees C. This is a good temperature to supply heat to a heat engine.

To get the importance of this discovery in perspective it is useful to compare the performance of these eutectics with that of the lead-acid accumulator. Per unit weight, the Na-Ca-Mg fluoride eutectic mix is about 25 times as good as an energy store, while per unit volume it is about 30 times as good. Allowing for conversion to mechanical energy, which carries a fundamental thermodynamic penalty,there is here a factor of order 10.

So when all the oil is gone, you store up your sunlight in your eutectic heat-store, and drive off in your steam-car. The centre of gravity of world power will shift back to the tropics. (Unless, of course, the nuclear fusion people win through.)

Fuel crisis apart, it is still useful to be able to store energy as efficiently as this, and I can see many applications.

July 11 1973

I happened to be in a remote part of the country when one of the BBC TV series of programmes on the Energy Crisis(3) was on. There was silence in the pub, while people looked at it. Then came the news, with the usual content of local mayhem. You could no longer hear the TV sound over the buzz of conversation.

In other words, people seem to be becoming aware of the fact that our civilisation depends on stored solar energy, are uneasy that the end is in sight, and want to know more.

The message, however, is still garbled, in most peoples minds. One colleague, whom I hitherto had regarded as being well-informed, the possessor of an oil-fired central heating system, seemed to think that when the oil is gone it will be a relatively simple matter to replace it with some other system, such as electricity (!). He did not seem to realise that most electrical power is generated by burning oil.

The fuel crisis is compounded by the fact that all other aspects of human activity, including agriculture, depend on the extraction of exhaustible reserves of elements which have been concentrated at certain spots on the earth's surface by geological processes in the remote past. It is cheapest to take the best deposits first. As mining and extractive technology develops the ability to process lower-grade ores,it does so, but usually at the expense of more energy per ton of pure extract.

Intensive agriculture, dependent as it is on artificial fertilisers, is an increasingly important consumer of energy.

If civilisation is to survive the exhaustion of its fossil energy resources, it will need to solve a series of inter-related problems in a conscious co-ordinated way. These problems may be divided into three classes: first, how to get as much utility as possible out of each unit of energy consumed; second, how to organise society so that people are able to live a full and interesting life with the minimum of dependence on utilities derived from the consumption of fossil energy; third, how to get energy without depending on fossil fuels.

An examination of the relationship between energy consumption and gross national product per head (see, for example, an article by Thring in the New Scientist on March 1) shows that while there is broad correlation between the two, there are interesting deviations from the norm. Thus the US and Canada are above the line, and Switzerland is below it; the Swiss only consume 3000kg of coal-equivalent per head to obtain $2500 of GNP, while the US consume over 10,000kg to achieve $4000 per head. In other words, the Swiss are cleverer than the US in getting value for energy expended. This is hardly a surprising result, when you think of the extravagances of the US automobile industry and the way of life that has developed under its influence, as compared to the proverbially thrifty Swiss.

There are various ways of developing a thrifty approach to energy consumption.

The idea of utilising waste heat from power -stations is not new, but it has had little impact (yet) on urban planning in Ireland or Britain. There are substantial gains to be made here, in that a power-station boiler can extract 90% of the heat from the fuel, while a small domestic boiler rarely exceeds 50% efficiency. A power- station can be designed which takes out about half of the heat for conversion to electricity, making available the other half at a temperature suitable for district heating (see PJ Byrne, on the financial page of the Irish Times on May 8).

This type of approach, to become practicable, requires more co-operation between the electricity generation and housing authorities than apparently we have got. This is basically an urban planning problem.

The idea of recycling materials is not new either; it has been with us for many years, in the form of the returnable glass bottle. (The present phase-out of that commodity is possibly the last occasion on which a short-sighted, profit-orientated management will try to pass some of its costs on to the community.) It is technically possible to process urban refuse, extracting the metals, digesting the vegetable matter to get methane, and processing the refractories into building materials. State taxation policy can help this to become the norm.

An extension of the idea of recycling materials, however, is to impose the need to consider overall energy consumption at the time of manufacture.

Thus, a motor-car could, in principle, be designed without built-in obsolescence, and for maximum durability. Once its (say) 50-year life-span had elapsed it could be stripped easily into its components; these could either be re-used or recycled with alloys of like composition to produce raw material for new parts.

Implicit in this is the need to accept the existence of a plateau of satisfactory performance, and to drop out of the technological rat-race for speed, novelty and gimmickry. There is, of course, no reason why improvements in reliability of components and economy of performance should not be filtering through steadily to the current stock, via a well-monitored maintenance procedure.(4)

...In order to do a job there is usually more than one method. Thus if I want to feed nitrogen to my grass, I can either buy fertiliser, or encourage clover to grow in the sward. The latter uses the sun's energy directly, with great cunning, to pull in nitrogen directly from the air. The former is the result of using fossil fuel to pull in the nitrogen by brute force. There are many processes where 'brute force' use of energy may be substituted by 'cunning' use of biochemical processes involving enzymes working in living organisms.

I suggest that the main research effort of all basic science needs to be encouraged to move into the search for 'cunning' methods of getting utility directly from solar energy, or with minimal expenditure of fossil energy, as substitutes for the various 'brute force' methods which are now the norm.

It would be simplistic to think, as do some economists, that all will work out automatically because of the price mechanism. Human behaviour is a slowly-changing variable; cultural changes imposed blindly by price mechanisms can be pathological. There was, I suggest, a stong connection between the galloping inflation in Germany in the 20s and the subsequent rise of Nazism.

I suggest that it is not enough to plan to keep the price down despite the rise in fuel costs; it is necessary to plan to develop a demand for those utilities which have minimum energy-content, without necessarily resorting to the price-mechanism. In other words, can we develop a society where people enjoy each others company...and have a full cultural life without depending on a mass of complicated and expensive gimmics and gadgets? Can we educate people to live, to participate and to create, instead of to compete in conspicuous mass-consumption?

The principal alternative source of energy is the nuclear fusion reaction, whereby at high temperature hydrogen nuclei combine to form helium, giving out energy. This process occurs in the Sun and in the stars. It also occurs, in an uncontrolled manner, in the hydrogen bomb. Efforts are being currently being made to get it to occur in a controlled manner in the laboratory. It is on the success of these efforts that the future of civilisation depends.

I leave aside, deliberately, the use of uranium and the fission process as a long-term solution to the energy problem. Firstly because uranium in workable concentration is an exhaustible resource, comparable in its estimated reserves to coal. Secondly because the fission process gives rise to waste in the form of long-lived radioactive isotopes of elements which are biologically active (the best known being strontium-90 which is chemically similar to calcium and finds its way into milk and thus into your bones).

The current procedure whereby nuclear power-stations dump their waste down mines or in the ocean trenches (5) is, in my opinion, long-term ecological madness. Our descendants will curse us for the damage we are doing.

There is, however, a method available to us whereby the energy of unanium can be used: this makes use of the fact that the earth is a heat source, due to the radioactivity dispersed within it. Geothermal energy is already a going concern in places like Iceland, New Zealand and Italy, where there are 'hot spots' related to volcanic activity(6).

Solar power can be obtained either directly, with a device depending on sunshine, or indirectly via the wind, sea-waves or waterfalls.

The further possibilities for large-scale hydro-electric systems are not great: most have already been exploited. As the price of energy goes up it will become economic to build a large number of smaller hydro-stations, but (in Ireland) only a few percent of the present oil consumption can be replaced by this means. Various systems for augmenting hydro-power, by the use of tides (this is gravitational rather than solar energy) or wave-actuated pumps are being explored with varying degrees of seriousness.

The use of wind in marine propulsion is being re-examined by a German group, who are borrowing from aerodynamic technology and fitting an experimental boat with a system of vertical aerofoils, the pitch being under computer control.....the sailing-ship is being re-invented at a new level.....

The use of wood as a fuel is an indirect type of solar power; the overall economics of this is going to depend on the use of wood as a raw material for biological processes, with combustion for fuel as the fate of a residual by-product.

The most rapid conversion of atmospheric CO2 into biomass occurs in the tropical rain-forests; these perform a global scavenging function keeping the level of atmospheric CO2 down. I have not seen energy-balance caalculations for equilibrium use of the world's forests as a source of current-account solar energy; I suspect, however, that they would come nowhere the power required to replace our current fossil-fuel consumption. It took geological epochs of forests to lay down the coal-beds.

Direct solar power, using photo-electric conversion of sunlight into electricity, is already in use for space laboratories. At a conference held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in March of this year, a panel of experts held that for the expenditure of $3,500M over the next 15 years, direct solar power could provide 35% of the heating and air- conditioning, 30% of the gaseous fuel, 10% of the liquid fuel and 20% of the electricity needs, by the year 2020.

I distrust these pseudo-exact long-term estimates, but this... is the best that the 'solar lobby' can come up with. There remains a gap which can only be filled by the controlled fusion of hydrogen.

July 11 1973 (Contd)

At the annual conference of the Irish Branch of the Institute of Physics, held in Galway on April 7-8 of this year, there was an important symposium on the energy problem.

Dr RP Riddihough, of the Geological Survey Office, Dublin, outlined quantitatively the fossil fuel position: the oil will begin to run out within 20 years, and consumption patterns must change. We will be back to coal; the Irish coal deposits, long neglected and allowed to run down due to oil competition, will need to be re-examined as strategic reserves.

Mr C Farrelly of the ESB outlined the nuclear fission situation, with particular reference to radiation safety levels. There is no problem as regards operating staff, who can be shielded to levels comparable to those of other 'radiation-exposed workers' such as aircrews, who spend a large fraction of their lives exposed to cosmic rays at high altitude. There is, however, a waste disposal problem, which is rather uneasily admitted. The ESB have plans to 'go nuclear' by 1981, but are unhappy at the lack of an overall Government energy policy.

Mr HAB Bodkin, of the Atomic Energy Research establishment, Culham, England, outlined the present position regarding the controlled fusion reaction. There are two approaches: one is to heat rapidly a small pellet of suitable material (eg lithium hydride) with a strongly focussed source of energy, such as a laser beam.

Experiments and calculations show (using the principle of 'inertial containment') that it is not wildly out of reach to achieve a net energy output. This is a relatively recent and promising concept.

More developed, and intrinsically, perhaps, more manageable and continuous than the above (which looks like a series of mini-bombs rather than a power source) is the 'Tokamak', a Russian-developed device, one of a long series of electromagnetic systems for containing plasma(7). This line of research has occupied the attention of fusion labs in the USSR, the USA and Britain since the early fifties. (There is close collaboration between the major powers in this intrinsically non-military field). The problem is how best to use magnetic forces to contain and compress hot ionised gas, raising its temperature to stellar level. Theory gives a criterion (named after Lawson) which relates the density and the confinement-time, such that if the product of the two (expressed in ion-seconds per cubic centimeter) exceeds a certain value, the energy balance becomes positive.

Confinement time is the main problem as the plasma wriggles about like a snake and persists in finding 'holes' in the 'magnetic bottle'.

The Tokamak is a gigantic doughnut-shaped tube, surrounded by electromagnetic windings. Current flows in the ionised gas as it it were a one-turn short-circuited transformer winding.

Other systems had concentrated on achieving high densities for a short time, accepting the instabilities as being essentially incurable. The Tokamak, however, has remained at thermonuclear temperatures for up to 20 milliseconds, a long time as nuclear processes go, although the density of the plasma is low. The product of time and density turns out to be a (mere) factor of 100 below that required by Lawson, so that now all the labs are building bigger and better Tokamaks.

At the present rate, it is projected that the Lawson criterion will be attained by 1985 and a prototype power reactor built by 1995(8). ...There is every reason to believe that this can be speeded up: expenditure is running at a mere 5M per annum in Britain, and $40M in the US, mere chickenfeed as compared to expenditure on space or war technology.

This work is crucial for human survival. It will, hopefully, remove from the physicist the rather disreputable image with which to date the profession has been burdened, dating from the nuclear bomb, and substitute a more suitable charisma. That is, if people still need energy and have not declined into some sort of post-civilisation savagery.

Whether this happens or not will depend on the outcome of the power-political struggle for the declining reserves of oil. We live in interesting times.

November 28 1973

The visit of the Irish group of journalists to a 600MW power station which serves the north-western sector of Moscow (a population of about a million people) has been described by Donal Foley; RTE viewers will also have seen it on 'Feach'(9).

What did not emerge was the fact that it was an integrated system, supplying hot water to the whole area as well, for domestic use.

The electric power is generated by a set of steam turbines working between 560 degrees C (140 atmospheres) and 135 degrees C. Hot water is pumped into the city mains at 135 degrees C, returning at 50 degrees C. Domestic users tap into the 135-degree main, using a heat exchanger, controlled to supply domestic water at 70 degrees C.

On this principle it would be quite practicable for Ringsend power station to supply central heating for the whole of Dublin.

Lay people in the group were impressed by the size of the power-station. Non-technical Irish people who go abroad typically react like this. In fact, Ringsend or Ballylumford (in Belfast) are comparable in output. Size is not necessarily important. What was important was the use of on-line computer control to trade off heat and electricity outputs against each other, in a situation where demand for each was changing independently, on an hourly basis.

(On this theme there appeared on the same day an account of a paper read by Neil D Muir to the Institution of Engineers of Ireland (Electrical Division), outlining Swedish and other experience of district heating systems. The key point which emerged was that present legislation does not allow for the possibility of the ESB producing heat as well as electricity. The ESB was stated to be inviting public discussion of 'any redefinition of the role of the ESB either separately or in the context of national energy policy'. The Minister had indicated his intention of coming, thereby suggesting recognition of the need for consideration of amending legislaation, but he failed to turn up, ...'much to the disaappointment of the assembled engineers, who had gathered in force to welcome him.' This account was written by Barre Carroll and Pat Herlihy, at the instigation of the present writer.)

December 19 1973

....The production of methane....from farmyard effluent by digestion a commercial proposition is not new. It is at least as old as the second world war, and possibly as old as the first.

It depends, for its commercial viability, either on the abundance of cheap labour, or on the solution of certain problems of mechanical handling. The former situation exists in China, when the production of methane to fuel Mao's communes...became the norm in the 'great leap forward'.....

In wartime Germany and France, the handling problems were solved by applying standard chemical engineering techniques to relatively large-scale systems....on the type of immense farm that one sees in the Ile de France, with light railways crossing the road.

The Agricultural Institute is studying a system for drawing slurry by tanker from all the pig-fattening units of Cavan to a central depot for processing and spreading under proper control; this is a response to the Sheelin pollution problem(10). Operations on this scale lend themselves to methane production.....

Small-scale operations are possible, but they do run into cost and handling problems. The process is basically two-stage, rather like brewing. The initial stage is aerobic and exothermic; it results in some ammonia loss but apparently it is necessary to activate the appropriate bacteria. The second stage is anaerobic and endothermic; methane is produced in a closed vessel.

The problem is how to design a plant so that the heat taken from the first stage can be conserved for use in the second stage. This is the key to economic success; the heat produced by aerobic fermentation is considerable, though low-grade.

It is not sound practice to burn some of the methane to heat the second-stage vessel, as you would have to degrade the heat of the flame to biological temperatures in order to avoid local over-heating and killing the organisms. To do this would in any case be thermodynamically unsound, involving large entropy gain.

The successful continental small-scale designs were basically annular, with loosely-packed manure surrounding the closed fermenter and keeping it warm. You needed plenty of straw. On the large scale, the whole process took place with liquid slurry, and stirrers were used.

To design an economic plant with the appropriate heat-exchange characteristics between stages, with minimal energy used in stirring.... pumping and handling, is quite a challenge. The type of expertise fit to rise to this challenge would be most likely to be found in a brewery; it is not identical to traditional chemical engineering, though close to it. A chemical engineer, who had worked in a brewery, and had a feel for low-energy, low temperature processes, would, perhaps, be the right man.

If the scale could be reduced single pig-fattening unit, it might prove possible to develop an integral design in which a variable and controllable amount of heat was produced in the aerobic stage, sufficient to keep the pigs warm as well as the methane-plant: natural central heating in the cellar.

This is deadly serious. We will have to learn all sorts of cunning tricks to survive. The Swiss peasants design their houses so as to use the warmth of the cows as a source of domestic heat; losses to the outside world are reduced by living under the stored hay, and surrounded by stored wood.

The Cambridge University Department of Architecture is....(designing) a free-energy total-recycling house, making use of wind energy, solar panels and rainwater. A central element in the design is a digester to produce methane from human excrement and kitchen waste.


The composition of the Nuclear Energy Board was published on December 12. The associated article by Dr Ian McAulay (published also today) makes a reasoned criticism of its status, timing and composition. I would like to add my voice to the criticism, and to suggest that there is something basically wrong with our decision-making process at national level, when Boards such as this can be set up in a manner which suggests that, despite the best will in the world on the part of the distinguished people concerned, they are expected to be rubber-stamps for decisions already taken.

Nuclear power production is a highly sophisticated and risky technology. Because the risks have been appreciated, to date the safety record has been good. The various alternative nuclear technologies need to be evaluated by a Board responsible to the State and independent of the ESB engineers.

The present Board is made up of Dr Murray, a civil servant, Professor Newbould of NUU, an environmentalist, Dr John O'Connor, a medical physicist, Professor Dillon of UCC(11), an electrical engineer and Dr Tom Walsh, Director of the Agricultural Institute.

With the greatest of respect to John O'Connor, the only physicist, there is nobody in the group with any direct experience of nuclear power technology. There should be at least one nuclear physicist with power experience, and at least one chemical engineer with experience of large installations handling hostile substances. Such people with Irish roots are to be found, though possibly abroad.

As it happens, we have various distinguished physicists who live and work in Ireland and are internationally respected. We have one such who represents Ireland officially on the Euratom commission. There is no evidence that any of this experience was drawn upon by the Minister in establishing the composition of this Board.

We have a black national record as regards official recognition of safety standards in matters relating to radioactivity, as Dr O'Connor will confirm. Despite the belated official recognition of the St Luke's radiation monitoring service(12) there is still apparently an irresponsible State attitude to the control of radioactive sources, as exposed by Dr McAulay in the associated article today.

We do not want this attitude to carry over into the nuclear power period. The Board will have to be tough and vigilant. With its present composition it will have to work hard.

What we do need urgently, rather than a 'nuclear energy board' is simply and Energy Board, charged with developing a national mix (the 'Energy Menu') between coal, oil, hydro, wind, peat, tide, waves, effluent digestion, food (viewed as fuel for use in horse or human muscle)(13) and, of course, nuclear energy in its various forms.

Whether we find oil or not, the epoch of cheap fossil fuel is over for good. We will have to conserve what we have got and use it to tide us over until we can achieve a balanced energy budget. So even if we do strike oil, we should price it high and use it slowly.

It seems unbelievable, but it is only about a year since we allowed the Ballingarry coalmines to be flooded, and only three or four since we allowed Castlecomer to go.

I seem to remember pointing out at the time that this was long-term madness, but without the aid of the Arabs it was difficult to break through to people.

The medium-term solution is coal rather than uranium. It is preferable to remain dependent for fuel imports on a multiplicity of coal-exporters than on a tiny handful of uranium-producers who also....are producers of nuclear weapons and who use power-programmes as a cover-up for the production of military-grade plutonium.

Donal Flood, who was Director of the IIRS during the Black Fifties, recently sent me a reprint of a 1954 paper which he gave to the Statistical and Social Enquiry Society....on energy resources....explaining technology to the economists.. He referred to a paper by Hugh Munro in 1953 in the Civil Engineers' proceedings, on wind-power.....this was in the aftermath of the peat-fire and bicycle epoch, the memory of the energy-crisis of the 40s being fresh. This way of thinking is coming back......conservationist ideas were...drowned in a sea of low-cost oil......

January 1/2 1974

I referred some time ago to a novel method of heat storage developed by Philips at Eindhoven, Holland. The principle consists in storing heat as latent heat of fusion of a eutectic mixture of alkali and alkaline earth fluorides....

On December 6 Dr J Schroder and PG Cantwell read a paper describing this principle, and some devices based upon it, to a meeting of the Electrical Division of the Institution of Engineers of Ireland..... Philips have developed a highly compact storage heater unit, from which the output is controllable. now associated with the concept.

A conventional storage heater weighs about 165 Kg and occupies 175 litres of space. A 'eutectic melt' storage heater of comparable performance weighs 74 Kg and occupies 43 litres. These heaters would rate at 3KW and could store 24 KWh of energy, letting the heat out at constant temperature. There are no scarce materials used, and the system is intrinsically safe.

It would however be incorrect to think of heat storage as being in any sense a 'solution' to the energy crisis. The economics depend on the relative cost of fuel and generating proportion as fuels becomes relatively more expensive, storage heating becomes less of a sound proposition.

There is however a role for the storage heater in applications such as direct solar energy conversion, using a concentrator. There is also a role for the eutectic storage heater as a mobile source of high energy-density (possibly 5 to 8 times that of the lead-acid accumulator, in terms of delivered energy...)

The energy-conserving solution for the domestic heating problem... is to pipe in to your friendly local power-station, as do the Muscovites... An obstacle to development along these lines is low-density suburban housing, planned on the assumption of the existence of the motor-car...... we are going to need to live closer together, share our warmth, cut down on transportation and generally develop from an individualistic to a more sociable way of living. This will have repercussions on town planning and architecture.....cities like Los Angeles will no longer be viable.

The ideal city will be one on a scale suitable to the cyclist and the pedestrian. Dublin can survive provided it points its development in the direction of a relatively high density and builds a metropolitan railway system.

January 16 1974

The idea of driving your car with methane produced by the anaerobic digestion of pig-slurry has caught peoples' imagination. I have had numerous letters looking for 'do-it-yourself' advice......the IIRS people are looking into this... the knowledge can be assembled fairly rapidly. But I am not yet in a position to quote definitive references.

There is nothing to stop people from experimenting on a pilot-scale with dustbins, gas taps and plastic tubing....remembering that an air-gas mixture is explosive.....(14)

This pilot-rig could be used to determine the quantitative relationships. There is an equivalence between tons of pigfeed going in and cubic feet of gas coming is also interested in the rate at which the 'x cubic feet per pig-day' total production is obtained: this is crucial because it determines the dwell-time and hence the size of the digester you will need when the whole thing is scaled up. You can double the rate of production by raising the temperature a few degrees. Here is where scale effects come in: it is easy to conserve heat within a large plant, but a small one is at the mercy of wind and weather. So your experimental rig should be in a constant-temperature enclosure: where better than in the sweat-box itself, kept warm by the company of the pigs? Records of daily production are of little use unless accompanied by temperature records.

If you want to use the output to drive your car, you will need a compressor and a gas-cylinder(15)......

Quantitative data from many small operators who keep records would be of some use in helping the IIRS to develop an effective standardised system. Experience can be pooled and the best selected. People who have messed about with a do-it-yourself system are more likely to become efficient operators of a full-scale system if and when it becomes commercially available.

March 6 1974

The IIRS now has six professionals and nine technicians working full-time on its Fuel Efficiency Service.....many boilers are working at 60% efficiency or less, and it is relatively easy to get an extra ten percentage points....just by adopting the correct practice....

A more basic approach is being made by Colm Forde in Galway, who has adapted an American heat-pump unit to supply domestic ducted warm air. This system was described briefly as front-page news some time ago. It is, of course, not new in principle, being the same thing as the ordinary domestic refrigerator.

Adapted as a domestic heating system, with cooling-coils outside(16) and a heat-exchanger in the house, for expenditure of three KW of electrical energy some ten KW of heat can be pumped into the ducted warm-air system.

By introducing hot-water storage into the system it can be made even more economical, in that the heat-pump can be run with off-peak electricity. This latter stage Colm Forde is still trying to negotiate with the ESB sales department. 'Management by objective' being what it is, the ESB sales people, part of whose job is to sell off-peak electricity, seem to take a poor view of people who want to buy off-peak electricity and convert it into three times as much heat, thus, in their view, undermining the market for direct conversion of off-peak electricity into ordinary dissipative heat.

However this question is resolved....(this heat-pump system).... looks economic, provided the installation-costs aare not too high... I have seen the system at work in the UCG physics laboratory, where it is undergoing long-term evaluation under varying external environmental conditions. The external heat-extractor coils need periodic de-freezing, but this can be automated.

March 14 1974

(The following points were made in some advance-publicity given to a seminar of the Institution of Engineers of Ireland on 'Energy and the Future', scheduled for April 5)

The first speaker is Professor Charles Dillon, of UCC.... (who) although a member of the Nuclear Energy Board......refrains from nailing 'nuclear power' to the mast in the title of his talk....this suggests a certain detachment.

...the omnibus title suggests a certain stretching of the vision. If a 'total-costing'(17) approach were to indicate that the ESB should not be selling electric cookers to farmers, but selling them bottled gas.....

(There is here apparently some missing material, which I will replace if I find it. RJ June 2001) providing prototype development services for manufacturers of microprocessor-controlled systems adapted to industrial process control problems, for example. Here we are not in the domestic appliance market, but we are in an area where hitherto on-line computer control equipment has looked too sophisticated or too expensive......

So far Dr Dexter has had support from the NSC and has depended entirely on research students and university technician staff. The development of technologies like this effectively to the industrial stage is beyond the capability of existing academic structures. New, market-orientated structures are going to be necessary(28), with additional technician and graduate-apprentice support, and a degree of commercial management. Such developments will need to be recognised by industry as bridge-building operations, or transmission-belts for technology, rather than as competitive consultancy companies. Many universities in Britain, such as Nottingham and Bangor, are already implementing successfully this type of academic business operation in various high-technology fields.

Such enterprises will also need the blessing of the University authorities as being academically respectable. This in Ireland will perhaps be a more difficult hurdle, though not insurmountable(29).

December 23 1975

Some correspondence has been generated by various comments I have made on domestic heating systems of various kinds.

I am in sympathy with the ESB (JM McGrath, December 15) in its claim that the efficiency of electric water and space heating, though limited by generation thermodynamics and distribution losses to some 25%, is better than domestic open grate efficiency, and probably better than most oil-fired systems when the latter are run without proper operating conditions.

According to Mr Gordon Brickenden, an engineer in Wicklow, who has done on-site measurements with domestic heating systems, domestic boilers can run with efficiencies as low as 6%, and that the usual range of operating efficiencies is from 30% up to 68% in a well-designed and maintained installation.

Brickenden has also made estimates for institutional systems before and after the introduction of heat-exchangers, and looked into heat-pump applications. There is need for the gap between academic research projects and everyday realities to be bridged by that all-too-rare breed, the innovative engineer. A few such are beginning to emerge.....

This, however, does not let the ESB off the hook; it merely defines the problem. The ESB....can hardly be expected to encourage its solid-fuel and oil-fired competitors to improve their will keep a major share of the heating market for as long as the performances of alternatives are on average so abysmal. It is a national responsibility to encourage an improvement in the performance of domestic and institutional systems to the point where the ESB staff at present engaged in selling electricity for space and water heating are forced by the market to devote attention where electricity can play a role in producing domestic and process heat with minimal thermodynamic loss.

These technologies are, in order of availability: (a) heat-pumps (b)co-generation (c)electronic control of direct combustion systems.

Of these the first two are readily available with well-tried technology. The third is novel......since the amount of electricity used for control purposes would be negligible, the ESB salesmen would hardly be expected to take any interest in it. Those concerned with boosting the qualitative image of electricity, as a uniquely versatile, controllable and subtle form of energy, might however rise to the challenge.

It would pay to use electricity in clever applications, where the currents are small, even if it cost 10 or 100 times as much to produce. If electricity applications were confined to light, motive power and electronics, few people would notice even a substantial increase in the unit-price; these rather than heat are the applications where electricity is out on its own.

.....what would happen to the ESB balance-sheet if it were to decide, as it could do, in response to the decline in growth-rate, to write off its equipment over a longer period? This would pull it into the black and leave it with some money to spend on R&D......

December 30 1975

I mentioned recently an NRDC development in Britain involving the use of wind energy to heat glasshouses. Well, according to Tom Flaherty, who is the engineer specialising in glasshouse heating in the Agricultural Institute at Kinsealy, the NRDC has got its sums wrong.

A reasonable output for a wind-generator of manageable size is in the range 15-50KW, while a one-acre glasshouse (a reasonable family-size unit) soaks up about a megawatt of thermal energy.

Tom Flaherty is putting the effort into conservation, with windbreaks, insulating curtains, double-layer systems with polythene etc; this is the main thrust of research effort world-wide.

There are however two other angles that have not yet been taken up at Kinsealy. One is the heat-pump....used for soil-warming, ie with output,say, 10-30 degrees above ambient; this would work very efficiently, having a coefficient of performance perhaps as high as 10, provided the working fluid and control system were tailored specially for the job. This 50KW of electrical energy could be pumped up to 500KW of thermal energy, which is a reasonable match for a well-insulated acre of glass.

The wind-generator, however, would need the ESB as standby on cold, still nights. However an initial look at such a system has been taken and the economics appears unfavourable......

The second good solution is for the glasshouse-owners of Rush to club together and contract to buy hot water from the ESB, which the latter could produce by installing a 50MW(e) diesel generator set in their midst, feeding the electricity to the grid and the cooling water to the glasshouses.

This is a special version of the 'co-generation' system; the highly favourable economics of the Saarbrucken system have recently been outlined to Dublin engineers.

February 3 1976

Can anyone think of a use for 100HP of free mechanical energy, available for eight months of the year, two shifts out of three in the day? A three-shift-system is possible if an existing obsolete productive system were to be integrated with a larger unit elsewhere.

The energy is 'free' in the sense that it comes from an existing water-turbine, one of the few small systems remaining in the country(30). The capital costs are written off, and maintenance costs are minimal.

For as long as the ESB remains ill-disposed towards integrating small local power-schemes into the system (though this is becoming increasingly feasible, thanks to the dramatic drop in the cost of electronic control) , the opportunities seem to be somewhat limited. Electrolysis springs to mind: recovery of silver, hydrogen production etc......

ESB storage heaters are normally on separate circuits. It should not be too difficult to rig up a local circuit supplying (say) 60KW of water or space heating with unsynchronised electricity; although legally the ESB has a monopoly, perhaps it might be persuaded to waive its rights in the interests of energy conservation?

Any industrial process taking up to 60KW of process heat continuously might equally well be a candidate(31).

There are many other locations in the country where small water-powered units have existed in the past which are perhaps worth a re-appraisal in the light of contemporary fuel costs. The value of the energy in the system mentioned above is over 100 pounds per week, which is not to be ignored.

June 22 1976

The rise in basic energy price has stimulated much interest in alternative energy sources, many of which have moved from the 'crank fringe' into the economic domain. In Denmark, for example, wind energy as a source of electricity for the national grid is being looked at seriously by the electricity supply authorities. Denmark is 100% dependent on imported fossil fuel. We are not far short of this, at 80%. The Danes are considering a wind-energy development budget of the order of 1M pounds per annum for the next five years, the bulk of this being earmarked for relatively large-scale projects. Small-scale projects are already showing results; for example at a local college of technology in Kolding, Jutland, an 8KW experimental unit has been developed, producing 16,000 KWh per annum. The basic cost of the unit is said to be 2000 pounds, including installation. This is a capital cost per installed KW comparable to nuclear, without the environmental hazard.....

Those interested in solar energy in Ireland have come together to form the Solar Energy Society of Ireland. The inaugural meeting some weeks ago was filled to overflowing......the Chairman is Dr Eamonn Lalor of the National Science Council....and the secretary Dr Owen Lewis of the UCD School of Architecture....

August 17 1976

....There is no use in having a rush of small firms into the energy-conserving appliance market if they are not properly organised to educate the market away from obsolete systems designed in the epoch of cheap English coal.

A co-operative approach to development, production and marketing is the solution. A strong central co-operative marketing organisation should make as much impact on the home market as has Bord Bainne on the exports of butter. It could contract out the production of the hardware to a variety of small producers, and make effective use of the research findings of Bord na Mona and IIRS. It could be owned jointly by the co-operating producers, just as Bord Bainne is owned by the co-operative milk-processors......

September 7 1976

The September Technology Ireland....has the status of an energy conservationist's handbook.....

...Regarding heat pumps, the NUU group has specified some of the technical problems. Standard units developed for the US air-conditioning market are designed to extract heat, not reject heat at a useful temperature. A heat-pump adapted to domestic heating needs to be designed from scratch..... the economics must be evaluated on a DCF basis, comparing with alternatives. This the UCG group has done; they find that if the capital-cost differential over oil-fired central heating is assumed to be 250, the break-even coefficient of performance (COP) is 3.1 . Thus the current standard equipment, borrowed from air-conditioning applications and giving a COP of 2-2.5, does not look attractive. Consequently heat pumps remain in the R&D region.....can a system be designed at a cost-differential of 250 to give a COP substantially above 3, with suitable choice of refrigerant, sizing and matching of components, and avoidance of losses due to bad layout?

This is the task facing the UCG and NUU groups.....

December 14 1976

On November 30 there took place a seminar....under the joint auspices of the District Heating Association and the IIRS......which suggested that a district heating bandwagon is at last getting under way, after years of apparently barren spade-work by Peter Byrne, Raymond Conway and others.

The participants.....included most if not all of the firms and orgnisations concerned with the energy business in Ireland.....

Gathered together, the papers constitute an up-to-date guide to contemporary district heating technology (...with or without co-generation) which happily is now in the hands of most of the key people who make the relevant investment decisions....

Particularly important was the Danish experience....few towns of over 2000 population are without district heating.....power-stations remote from towns are now being sources of district heat....

Clearly the future in Ireland also lies with municipal heat and power stations, linked to a national grid as back-up well as enabling the low-grade heat to be utilised, transmission losses are avoided by the simple and obvious expedient of placing the heat and power sources near to their main markets......

Concluding Remarks (November 26 1982)

We are still a long way from the energy policies suggested in the foregoing. Kinsale gas, after a decade, is at last on its way to Dublin. There is a mini-hydro revival; there are some demonstration-projects with wind-generators, some under ESB management. Some trial biomass plantations have been laid out, and some work done on optimal species selection, spacing etc. Machinery has been developed by the Sugar Co. to harvest coppices and reduce the wood to fist-size chunks for optimal drying and combustion. Forestry waste is being briquetted for the consumer market. There is an experimental dairy-farm near Cork powered by photo-voltaics.

Co-generation, with electricity produced as a by-product of a district heating system, remains however on the agenda; it has got lost in the urban planning jungle, along with effective public transport.

Production of methane from animal slurry, despite the considerable volume of raw material available, has not become significant. This must be attributed, in part at least, to the weakness of environmental legislation; see note 14.


a. Global warming had not at this time been identified as a threat; I was aware of the practice of greenhouse owners, who regularly enriched with CO2 their controlled environments.

b. Economists at this time had not got around to quantifying the disposal costs of the radioactive waste embedded in the spent fuel-rods.

1. JP Byrne: a National Policy for Secondary Fuel in Ireland; Transactions of the Institution of Engineers of Ireland, Vol 97, p169.

2. This is not the same Byrne. Peter J Byrne has resigned from the ESB and now works for J A Kenny and Partners.

3. The Arab-Israel war didn't take place until the following October.

4. Mr de Lorean had the right idea (stainless-steel and fibreglass construction) but he went for the wrong market with his Belfast project. A 50-year stainless-steel vehicle of sound design would cause boring assembly-line jobs to be replaced by maintenance work which is intrinsically more skilled and interesting.

5. There is now an expensive R&D programme on this problem. Some early wastes were dumped without adequate precautions.

6.Hot dry rock in stable geological formations can sometimes be 'mined' of its heat at a useful temperature; there is some R and D work going into this in Ireland.

7. Plasma is the 'fourth state of matter': totally ionised material, at such a high temperature that no electrons remain bound to nuclei.

8. Detailed design studies for a 600MW device, to serve as an international fusion engineering pilot project, are currently (1982) well advanced. See for example IAEA Bulletin 1982 (supplement). This prediction was based on the optimism of the physics community at the time; success in this domain remains elusive. RJ June 2001.

9. This group went along with various other concerned citizens to a World Peace Council conference in Moscow, which took place in October 1973, fortuitously coincident with the Yom Kippur war, which precipitated the 'energy crisis' in the public consciousness.

10. Alas still with us in 1982. Indeed the problem remains with us in 2001. RJ.

11. Subsequently to become Chairman of the ESB.

12. Dr John O'Connor started this as a voluntary sideline to the radiation-therapy unit in the main Dublin cancer-hospital.

13. The most energy-efficient system for human transportation is the bicycle. A serious study of its potential role in a compact city is long overdue. Such a study should include an evaluation of the public-health implication.

14. Quite a few people did small-scale experiemnts, but a cost-effective system never entered the market in Ireland,despite the obvious need for upgrading pig-slurry in the catchment areas of the Northern drumlin lakes, where the fishing is being destroyed.

15. There is a weight penalty, as methane doesn't liquefy; one needs a high-pressure cylinder and appropriately powerful compressor. It would just about begin to be economic for a centrally-managed fleet of short-haul vehicles.

16. Heat is abstracted from ambient air (or, better, water, eg if a stream is available) at low temperature and pumped up to high temperature by the addition of mechanical energy. A refrigerator is a heat pump where the cooling coils cool an enclosed space.

17. cf J P Byrne 22/11/72.

The following notes give an indication of the missing content. RJ June 2001.

18. A model is needed at a greater level of detail that customary in econometric studies (eg the work of Eamonn Henry and Sue Scott in ESRI) but not so detailed as that needed to predict the performance of a particular piece of equipment. This area has been taken up by the National Board for Science and Technology since about 1979.

19. If the production of electricity from nuclear energy could be decoupled effectively from the production of plutonium for bombs, it would imply the existence of a society sane enough to organise to cope with the environmental hazards. The present policies of the nuclear powers suggests otherwise.

20. Solar energy wasn't seriously considered until Dr Eamonn Lalor's report 'Solar Energy for Ireland' was published by the NSC in March 1975.

21.The economics of Irish participation in transatlantic aviation depends on Shannon being designated as the transatlantic airport. This position has had to be defended against US carriers seeking rights to fly to Dublin. One such raid was currently in progress and was in the news.

22.One joins the Irish branch of the British institutions (Mechanical, Electrical, Civil or whatever) for the learned journals; the IEI provides the social life, meetings, political muscle etc across the whole engineering spectrum.

23.Kinsale gas, alas, is methane. See Note 15. I am surprised that no-one took up this error at the time.

24.This assumes a hot-water storage system which is charged at night. The ESB currently market a system, known as Centralec, whereby this is done with ohmic heating. An attempt has been made to enhance this system with on-line micro-computer control, with the aid of the TCD engineers.

25.The impact of Dr Lalor's book and subsequent work on biomass has falsified this prediction. To provide the equivalent of Carnsore Point with a managed biomass production system, using cutaway bog and marginal land for short-rotation forestry, harvested mechanically and feeding central electricity generating stations similar to those currently in use for milled peat, is currently (1982) regarded as feasible. Pilot-schemes on a scale of the order of 10MW are currently in operation.

26.This goes back to the process of humanisation of the early hominids; fire must have played a key role in imposing group cohesion, development of language etc.

27.This was intended as a tongue-in-cheek comment.

From here on the notes relate to the available material.

28. The key step is to employ someone, to work in association with a good research area, whose motivation is not primarily academic, and who is unconstrained by academic schedules. A good model would be to take the IIRS and re-deploy it throughout the interstices of the whole 3rd-level system, keeping its own distinct programme and project management. This pattern exists in Norway.

29. When one tries to develop a career-structure for those involved (see note 28) one runs into difficulties. The TCD Applied Research Consultancy Group, with which the writer was associated, ran with moderate success from 1976 to 1980, but in the end foundered as a result of the inability to keep good people in key areas on a one-year contract basis. Traditional academic R and D functions by exploiting casual labour. To provide an alternative, more stable, applied-research career-outlet would make traditional fringe-academic short-term jobs look less attractive. The problem cannot be resolved within the 3rd-level system.

30.There are some 50 such sites currently under active development; there is an association of site-owners, and an emerging corps of consulting engineers familiar with mini-hydro practice.

31. One such process, set up in or about 1973, took 100KW from the ESB at the far end of the Western rural distribution network, to run a furnace to grow quartz crystals. The firm did not survive. There was at that time a certain lack of sophistication on the part of those administering development grants to industry in the West; the lessons have by now been learned.

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