Ice and fire

It’s sometimes hard for me to believe just how incredibly old I am. But this week I had a forcible reminder. I think it was in the early 1980s, while working on a technology and business magazine from Haymarket Publishing Group, that I first wrote the story about a planned power cable to bring electricity, generated by the more or less inexhaustible geothermal hear of Iceland, to the UK. (Note to foreigners – Haymarket is the money-making machine of Michael Heseltine, senior Tory politician of a previous generation who is mysteriously still going.)

The cable never happened but this week, the story is having one of its periodic revivals.

Does the idea make the remotest sense? Well, probably not the first time round. Then the UK had lots of coal, and active plans for new nuclear

power stations. Even the fast reactor. Climate change

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was not an issue. Renewables were only seen as a long-shot backup against potentially hideous rises in the oil price – like maybe to an unimaginable $30 a barrel.

There are still problems. For one thing, a cable supplying a significant percentage of the UK’s power needs would be a chunky prospect. The cable across the English Channel is rated at 2000MW, a couple of big power stations. but this would need to be bigger and longer. There is also a

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slight question of geography. A cable from Iceland would naturally land in unpopulous northern Scotland. So the whole UK electricity system would have to be strengthened to take the power south to the users. There are already regular protests about new pylons in the lovely Highlands.

Then of course, politics. Does a cable from one tiny nation that has just gone bust to a possibly independent Scotland of limited financial means make sense?

It just might. First, cable technology is getting better. But more importantly, there is far more discourse now about European solutions to energy supply problems. See, for example, the 2008 UK Foresight report Powering Our Lives.

We are already used to the idea of cooking in France with methane from Siberia. A lot is said about covering the Sahara with

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photovoltaic cells to feed Europe with electricity. (People boosting this idea never mention the possibility of any Africans

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getting any electricity.) Or wave power from the seas around Britain could boil kettles across the continent. In this context, incoming geothermal power from Iceland would add to the mix nicely.It would not be cheap, but decarbonising European energy is bound to cost something.

Of course, doing this would call for a new willingness to plan on a European scale, at a time when national instincts seem to be in the ascendant. It would mean big supra-national infrastructure becoming a priority – maybe the right idea in the current recession. It would offer a side-step around the European impasse over new nuclear power. And Iceland coud sure use the money. So maybe the wire’s moment has finally arrived.

Or maybe I’ll still be writing the story of the cable that never was in a few more decades. Last time I used a typewriter, this time a laptop. Any guess at the technology I’ll deploy next time?

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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