Motion, Midges and the Magician of the North
Review of "Water
and wind: Can renewables deliver?", a panel debate held at
Cragside, 19th June 2013
By Danny Crossley
Could any place or time of year have been more befitting for a
debate on renewable energy than the fairy castle of the
magician and scientist, Lord Armstrong at Cragside? It was a
marriage of art and science. Two days from the summer
solstice, one could not wish for more beautiful scenery. Lakes
in forests ordered by the hand of man delivered energy to light
up the whole estate, electricity through water.
The aqueous solutions that we were pondering had been
developed 150 years earlier when coal was plentiful at the
height of the industrial revolution. The genius whose
influence irrigated the North East had foreseen it all.
We were re-enacting the same debate in the magician's palace
113 years after his death at the age of ninety. One couldn't
help but be impressed by the stuffed birds, the collections of
shells in curved glass cases, the ornate brass light fittings now
lit by energy-saving L.E.D.s and the regal furniture, paintings
and Persian carpets, for he had entertained royalty here.
The cameras I helped to set up seemed an anachronistic
affront to their grandiloquence. I was there interviewing as
part of the film crew of The Great Debate. However, as I
gazed in admiration at the noble straight nose and high
forehead of the white marble bust, I recalled that here was
living science sustained by its high priests and magicians in the
present temple assembled.
Chaired by Dr.
Caspar Hewett — himself an engineer and
Director of The Great Debate —the panel consisted of three
experts in renewable energy, with an introductory talk by
Andrew Sawyer, a.k.a. The Soul of Cragside. He was once
Parks' Foreman at Saltwell Park, which I live near to, so that
became a subject of common interest.
He took us through the history of our setting, animating the
era with the enchantment of a magical story being told to
wide-eyed children. Complexity became simplicity.
Darkness became light. He took us inside Armstrong's house
and mind, depicting him as a solicitor sitting by a water wheel
and noting the water wastefully splashing around the sides of
the open paddles until he came up with the idea of enclosing it.
Thus was born Armstrong the engineer and the Rotary
Hydraulic engine. Function and beauty was how Andrew
summed it up.
Disbelieving anything could be perfect, I asked him if there had
been any problems. The pipes were of cast iron, there was
water flowing through them: did they not rust? Andrew
assured us that the one in the photograph he had shown us
was still intact after 150 years. Were there no occasions
where electricity met its old enemy: the water that generated
it flowing in the same ducts, or no fires? None was recorded,
he said, even quoting from contemporary logs. Surely this
was the greatest testimony to the standard of engineering
rather than the practice so prevalent today of covering up
mistakes and accidents, or pretending they didn't happen, or
saying that lessons must be learned but never are?
The first speaker was a Teaching Fellow in the School of
Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University
with the delightful name of Cat Button. She explained
micro-hydro projects to us clearly and knowledgeably.
Micro-hydro projects use small dams and can deliver power
generated by water wheels almost anywhere where there is a
river and energy is needed. Cat chose one on the River Wear as
an illustration. Such schemes would be ideal for small rural
communities, providing they have a river, I thought. I was
intrigued by the possibilities this opens up.
In contrast, the scale of the projects in the next speaker's
portfolio was huge.
Hughes is Senior Engineer
responsible for Reliability and Validation at the National
Renewable Energy Centre (NaREC) in Blyth. He spoke clearly
and eloquently on his subject, necessarily leaving out a lot of
detail due to time constraints, which was a shame because I
enjoyed listening to him. He produced a bar chart showing
variations in energy usage by source throughout the year. He
briefly described a few projects, such as the 3MW Drive Train,
the testing of large-scale turbines, Project Oyster, the Snapper,
which was a kind of buffer to smooth out the energy generated
by waves, the Severn Tidal Fence and the Pelton Wheel —all in
The last speaker, Richard Murray, Head of Wastewater
Operations for Northumbrian Water, tackles the unenviable
problem of getting energy from sewage sludge while trying to
avoid upsetting the neighbours! He spoke in accessible,
down-to-earth language about the sewage treatment process
and various processes for obtaining energy from sludge, such
as anaerobic digestion (the breakdown of sewage by
micro-organisms without oxygen) and Thermal Hydrolysis
(releasing energy from cells in sewage by boiling it, to put it
The Questions and Answers interludes were regulated by
Caspar, who allowed ample and equitable opportunity within
the time we had for points from the audience to be raised and
discussed and gave the panel the opportunity to discuss their
points of view amongst themselves.
I was intrigued by a question asked by David Goodacre, a
director of the Great North Festival, about why the
old-fashioned windmills had four sails whereas the modern
wind turbines had only three. Jonathan Hughes began giving
an answer, but he didn't get the chance to finish it, because it
was answered by a member of the audience.
I wanted to interview Jonathan because I had seen a talk he
had given on renewable energy on YouTube for a previous
event and was impressed with his style. In the video he
displayed a bar chart showing where we get our energy from.
In the video, he said we rely on coal for 47% of it and gas for
25%, a lot of which has to be imported. He suggested
bringing these proportions down to 5% each in order to reduce
our reliance on imported fuel and making up most of the
shortfall with renewable energy sources. This would include
20% from Biofuels, 20% from wind but only 8% from marine
renewables (which I took to include wave power). Renewable
energy from water did not feature significantly in the YouTube
proposal, so I asked him how these percentages were arrived
at and what happens when the experts cannot agree. This
was prompted also by another YouTube video I had watched of
Sally Poxon, also from NaREC, in which she proposed that 50%
of renewable energy come from wind power.
Jonathan said that there was disagreement and that it was
influenced by other factors such as environmental and political
considerations. He came back to the question of the number
of blades on a wind turbine as a nice example, saying the
standard for that had been set whereas there was still
controversy over the optimal number of blades in wave
At the end of the debate I interviewed him outside but wish I
hadn't because I have never been so badly bitten by midges in
my life. My hand was black with them, they were in my eyes
and mouth and it felt like being stabbed by thousands of
red-hot daggers at once. It felt like thousands of them
crawling across my face.
Jonathan distinguished himself by completely ignoring them as
he was answering my questions in front of the camera. Even
Arron (on camera) was blinded by them. We were both
amazed by Jonathan's coolness. He kept a straight face
throughout, not even blinking and just articulated everything
he wanted to say in the midst of this midge hell as though he
were in the midst of comfort. Bear that in mind as you watch
it! My hat goes off to him.
The midges were so keen on us they followed us onto the
coach back. I was worried in case the driver got distracted,
but they seemed to disappear long before we got back to
Newcastle. Perhaps they didn't like Geordieland! I
remember before I got back on the coach I had a questionnaire
to fill in and was being bitten so much that I couldn't fill it out.
It made me wonder why hadn't Lord Armstrong or anybody
else managed to get rid of them? Surely that isn't beyond
Danny Crossley,June 2013
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