Alton Webteam: January 2018
To use an old-fashioned expression, electricity doesn't grow on trees. That is, it is not something which is there to be taken without much trouble. It can't be dug out of the ground like coal, or pumped out like oil or gas. It doesn't occur naturally except, most spectacularly as in lightning during a thunderstorm. Nobody has managed to harness lightning for any useful purpose although Benjamin Franklin, one time American Ambassador to the Court of Britain, is reputed to have tried. Static electricity was also known in the 18th century, but only as an interesting phenomenon of Nature.
Not until the industrial revolution, when power was needed to drive all kinds of machinery, was large scale generation of electricity a possibility. The advantages of electricity were clearly demonstrated to me on a visit years ago on the farm where my father grew up. In an old barn there was still the circular track round which a horse paced, harnessed to a pole attached to the upper stone of a grinding mill. There were also the pulleys and shafts of the next generation of power from a steam engine of the type now to be seen at fun fairs. In a corner was the electric motor which was the last mode for driving the now superseded corn mill.
The energy to drive the motor had, of course, to come from a power station which could have been miles away, but still dependent on burning coal to raise steam to drive a turbine which in turn drove the generator, a complex process which still produces most of our electricity today. Sad to relate, the overall efficiency of the system is miserably low at about 32%. Put more bluntly, two thirds of the available energy in the fuel is wasted. Some goes up the tall chimneys and is lost to the atmosphere, and some in the cooling towers.
Something better is surely needed, first because of the waste of heat, secondly because burning coal, gas or oil pours C02 and other pollutants into the atmosphere, and thirdly, because these fuels will eventually become too difficult to extract or come to an end altogether. We need to begin the search for renewables and non-pollutants before it is too late.
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