Sunday, 12 April 2009

The environment is too important to be left to the green movement

Will Hutton
The Observer, Sunday 12 April 2009

The green movement as it stands should receive the last rites. Its only hope is for a complete overhaul. Its mystic, utopian view of nature and its attachment to meaningless notions such as sustainable development or the precautionary principle should be done away with. It is time to move on.
Or so says Professor Anthony Giddens in his new book, The Politics of Climate Change. It is not that Giddens disputes that mankind is dangerously warming up the planet. The scientific evidence is overwhelming; the risk of a global calamity all too real.
It is just that he has the chutzpah to acknowledge what is obvious. Despite the threat, and the mounting evidence, there is no hope of mobilising western governments and the public into action by appeals to green utopianism or impossible demands to give up our current standard of living. There needs to be a new language, a focus on climate change alone, because that is what counts and is a practical route forward that makes sense to the mass of people. Otherwise, we really are lost.
Giddens curiously and paradoxically overlaps with Nigel Lawson's recent polemics against environmentalists. Yet Giddens is not a global-warming sceptic like Lawson, who disputes even the evidence of science. But he does understand Lawson's impatience with some of the daffy thinking that surrounds the environmental debate and tries to replace it with some tougher ideas.
How, he asks, are we ever to mobilise public opinion about distant threats that inevitably feel not very real? By the time it is proven that the scientists were right, it will be too late to do anything. The inhabitants of Easter Island who destroyed their own ecosystem are a warning. Human beings are myopic. Now the same myopia is evident globally. We have to do better, not least to see off the siren-like arguments of the Nigel Lawsons.
The first problem is that the green movement is shot through with contradictory impulses. Prince Charles and the G20 protesters cannot realistically muster under the same intellectual and political banner. Charles has the conservatives' reverential attitude towards the enduring and natural forces of nature. His love of nature is genuine, but it segues seamlessly into his view that monarchy is as much part of the natural order as the seasons. Nobody is trying to keep global temperature growth to below 2 degrees centigrade to save the Windsors.
On the other wing of the green movement, the G20 protesters interpret climate change as proof positive of the evils of capitalism and the capitalist state. They believe there needs to be a return to the local and a new radical left politics. The state should be broken down. Capitalism should be superseded by local co-operative enterprise and local political decision-making. Food should be organic. Trade should be constrained. Air travel and car use radically reduced. And so on.
The vast majority are unmoved. Worse, many mainstream environmental intellectuals drop rigour when it comes to the environment, climate change and risk. Under the precautionary principle, almost nothing should be done that endangers the climate, just in case the worst scientific warnings are right. The aim should be sustainable development - to grow economically in a way that passes the globe on to the next generation in the same condition in which we found it.
Giddens joins Lawson in dismissing this thinking as wretchedly woolly. Are we really going to risk nothing? This is a refutation of our very risk-taking humanity. In any case, there is little chance of building a consensus over which risks matter and to what degree. Instead, the percentage principle should rule - taking risks in proportion to the probable good and bad outcomes. Moreover, sustainable and development should not be used together so loosely. Development is a dynamic concept that necessarily depletes resources. Poor countries such as China or India can only develop unsustainably. They must burn coal. To ask the entire world to commit to sustainable development is to damn the less developed world to poverty. Those countries will never agree.
The dead end of the current debate is revealed in a sequence in the new film The Age of Stupid. Middle-class lobbyists are filmed successfully resisting planning permission for a wind farm, acknowledging as they do so that there does need to be action on global warming.
But similar middle-class lobbyists could have been filmed resisting planning permission for Heathrow's third runway, this time using the same green arguments. The common thread is that home-owners don't want development near them and deploy any useful argument to hand. Sometimes they are right, sometimes wrong.
For example, there are powerful arguments for a third runway; Heathrow's capacity is pivotal to the vibrant knowledge economy in west London, Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. With the collapse of financial services, this is Britain's economic future. Certainly, hundreds of thousands of residents in west London will suffer more flights, if from quieter aircraft, yet their interests must be offset by the interests of many more millions.
Climate change cannot be a political game, to be played as and when it suits particular protesters - G20ers or middle-class nimbys. The country needs to develop a vision of where it wants to be in, say, 2025, in terms of carbon emissions, energy independence and wider economic structures. Then it needs to "back-cast" to today and make sure what it does is part of a wider plan that builds, step by step, towards that vision. So if the government wants to build a third Heathrow runway, it must show how it intends to compensate for higher air traffic with radically lower carbon emissions elsewhere. It is called planning. It needs to come back into fashion - fast.
The best arguments to kill the "so-what" factor over climate change are not scary tales from a far-distant future. It is to argue for investment in energy efficiency because it saves cash and makes strategic sense. Tidal and wind power along with nuclear energy emit less carbon, but they also free Britain and the west from dependence on Russia and radical Islamicist oil producing states.
Cars powered by electricity or hydrogen are cheaper. The less-developed world will only follow suit if the west picks up the bill. But to persuade western publics to make sacrifices requires more than trying to terrify them. It requires laying out concrete actions that collectively make sense now.
Greens and environmentalists will challenge Giddens's book. It is true that as a result of their campaigning the culture is changing; but far too slowly. The danger is far too serious to be co-opted by the left, nimbyists, G20 protesters, princes or utopian conservationists. There needs to be a visionary plan that spells out where we want to be, and in which a series of feasible and justifiable actions is delivered by the state which can then be backed by mainstream opinion. Otherwise our civilisation will go the same way as that of Easter Island.

Tapping into geopressure

The Sunday Times
April 12, 2009
Green pioneers: Andrew Mercer plans to harness the pressure of natural gas to generate electricity
Andrew Stone

BRITAIN’s gas network contains an untapped source of clean energy that Andrew Mercer, a former IT entrepreneur, plans to harness.
Mercer’s scheme is to tap the high pressure at which gas emerges from underground to drive turbines and generate electricity. Late next year Mercer’s “geopressure” company, called 2OC, will generate its first power at a gasworks in Becton, east London.
The plant will be the first project of Blue-Ng, a £300m joint venture between 2OC and National Grid. It will generate 19.5MW, enough to power 50,000 homes.
The Becton site will generate more power from an adjoining combined heat and power (CHP) plant that will burn oilseed-rape fuel supplied by nearby farms.
Blue-Ng has planning permission for a site in Southall, west London, and has an eye on five other London locations.
Generating power from geopressure is efficient as well as clean, according to Mercer. While a coal-fired power station will typically be 35% efficient and the best gas-turbine power station is about 50% efficient, 2OC claims it can achievce electricity-generation efficiencies of 70%-80%.
If biomass is burnt at the same time in a CHP plant, more than 90% of the heat produced can be recovered and used – in the case of Becton to reheat the gas that gets very cold when it loses pressure.
Mercer said his technology produces better results than wind or wave power. “Power generated by natural gas pressure is available round the clock. It does not require wasteful base-load power to be standing by and it is responsive to demand.”
The mini power plants will use existing brownfield sites so it should be easy to secure planning permission, said Mercer. “Many of these sites will be in industrial areas so you won’t really notice them.”
As Britain’s gas grid has 12,000 pressure-reduction stations, all of which in theory could be turned into mini power generators, the Blue-Ng venture could help plug the gap emerging in the country’s ageing power generation network, said Mercer.
“We expect to generate 1GW within five years but we also have a big hairy ambition to reach 10GW by 2020.”
By adding 1GW of clean electricity generating capacity to the UK’s power supply, 2OC claims it could remove 1m tonnes of carbon from the Earth’s atmosphere, equivalent to the National Health Service’s carbon footprint.
Mercer has global ambitions, too, and is establishing operations in America, Germany and the Middle East. If exploited worldwide, geopressure technology could add generating capacity of between 100GW and 400GW, reducing carbon emissions by between 100m and 400m tonnes. “The technology can be used anywhere there is a gas grid,” he said.

Firms abandon carbon offsets

The Sunday Times
April 12, 2009

Tricia Holly-Davis

CARBON-OFFSET PROJECTS in emerging economies, once the darling of British companies keen to address their environmental impact, are becoming the latest casualty of the recession.
Sales of credits for voluntary offsetting projects plummeted 70% during the first two months of this year compared with the last two months of 2008, according to the environmental research firm New Energy Finance. The price of these credits also suffered, falling 30%.
“Any project reliant on voluntary offsets is going to find it very difficult to move forward in the present economic climate,” said Jon Williams of accountants Price Waterhouse Coopers.
The greatest threat is to small projects designed to improve the living standards of communities in developing nations – replacing cooking stoves or providing solar panels to rural villages without electricity, for example.
In the boom times, companies were happy to invest in “social good” projects because they fitted with their broader pledges on corporate social responsibility. But carbon-credit retailers say feel-good projects could be the most affected by the economic downturn, as companies concentrate on projects that have the biggest environmental impact.
“There is likely to be more demand now to buy credits for large renewable projects such as wind and hydro, where the cost per tonne of emission reductions is less,” said Neil Braun, chief executive of the Carbon Neutral Company, a carbon-credit retailer.
Concern about the financial implications of the UK’s Carbon Reduction Commitment, which will come into effect in April 2010, is also dampening interest in carbon offsetting. Under the scheme, about 20,000 British firms will be required to buy energy allowances. The government’s aim is to save 4m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year by 2020, but companies question whether they should buy carbon offsets as well.
“There is an argument that money might be better spent on cutting energy consumption,” said Paul Dickinson, chief executive of the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP). A report due to be released next month by the CDP will show that corporate investment in energy efficiency is rising during the recession as companies look for cost and carbon savings they can actually measure.
The benefits of offsetting are not straightforward, said Neil Sachdev, commercial director of J Sainsbury. “It just passes the problem to a third party. It makes more sense to focus on energy efficiency, where there are clear economic and environmental savings.” Sainsbury offset the emissions linked to the construction of a new building two years ago. “It only reinforced our belief that energy reduction is a more efficient way to spend our money, “ said Sachdev.
Diageo, whose brands include Johnnie Walker and Baileys, takes a similar view. “Offsets would only be considered as a last resort for emissions that we cannot eliminate in any other way – and we anticipate that these instances will be rare,” said a spokesman.
Those companies that are still buying offsets are demanding projects show direct emission reductions. Several firms register projects whose credits are sold on the voluntary market, but the most widely accepted offset standards are the Gold Standard and VCS.
Jasmine Hyman of the Gold Standard, a non-profit group that delivers up to a 20% premium for the projects it certifies, said more firms are now pledging that a certain proportion of their offset portfolios will include Gold Standard credits to ensure their investments are credible.
A long-standing problem with the voluntary carbon market is that it is unregulated. This has caused a lot of speculation about whether the pay-to-pollute method has any real impact on carbon reductions. Ed Matthew, Friends of the Earth’s head of UK climate, said there is an upside to the fallout in the offset market. “It’s great that more companies are reaping the rewards of making their buildings energy efficient rather than falling for the false solution of offsetting.”

Briefing: Electric cars: Plug in, drive off

The Sunday Times
April 12, 2009
The government is promoting the use of electric cars through a subsidy for new purchases. Is this really the way to save the environment?
Helen Brooks

Prime minister and London mayor launch initiatives Gordon Brown revealed last week that the government plans to subsidise electric-car use, offering purchasers £2,000 towards the cost of an electric car because “it’s good for the environment”. Boris Johnson, the London mayor, followed up the announcement by unveiling his scheme to turn the capital’s roads electric. His programme would include 25,000 “juice points”, charging stations for electric cars, across the city. Britain has agreed to cut its CO2 emissions by 80% before 2050. For that target to be met, 40% of all vehicles in Britain would have to be either electric or hybrid (powered by a combination of electricity and petrol), according to Lord Turner of Ecchinswell, chairman of the government’s climate change committee.
Electric cars are expensive and difficult to charge Even with the government’s planned subsidy, the cost of electric cars is still high: the two-seater G-Wiz Lion model, for example, starts at £15,795. The high-performance Tesla Roadster has a starting price of £87,100. There is also little infrastructure in place to support the recharging that such cars need. Even state-of-the-art batteries need to be charged roughly every 100 miles, and this has to be done at the car owner’s home. It is estimated that a normal household electrical circuit takes 10 hours to charge one car fully. Other difficulties could result from overuse of the national grid, which could short-circuit household fuses and cause blackouts nationally.
Electricity would be derived from coal power A bigger problem is the source of the electricity needed to run the cars. They would inevitably be partly powered by coal-fired power stations, which produce about a third of UK energy; renewables account for only 4%. Richard George of the Campaign for Better Transport said: “You’re not solving the CO2 problem at all. You’re just shifting it somewhere else.” Other critics queried the government’s focus on cars as bad carbon emitters. According to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agriculture accounts for 14% of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined global emissions of cars, trains, ships and planes. Recent research also suggests that one giant container ship emits the same amount of pollution as 50m cars.
Ecofriendly cars with no emissions already exist Many believe the future belongs to hydrogen-powered cars. They work by combining hydrogen with oxygen within the car’s own fuel cell and emit nothing but water. Britain’s first hydrogen fuel station opened in April last year at Birmingham University but Japan is ahead of the game: it finished building a hydrogen highway in 2005, which included the installation of 12 hydrogen-fuelling stations in 11 cities. Last summer Honda launched the FCX Clarity in the US, the first commercially produced hydrogen car, while Mercedes-Benz and BMW also have hydrogen-powered cars in the testing stages. The FCX Clarity costs $600 (£410) a month to rent and is not available to buy.

The race is on to create more mean drivers

The Sunday Times
April 12, 2009

Today’s green cars are fitted with systems that reward drivers for their economy
Ray Hutton

Climate change and the credit crunch have taken some of the fun out of motoring. Power, speed and the joys of the open road have been overtaken by the need to save money – and the planet.
There is a new sort of fun to be had out of driving, however. What the Americans call “hypermiling” – wringing the greatest possible mileage out of a given amount of fuel – has taken the place of lightning acceleration and neck-wrenching cornering.
Devotees get together to compare how many miles per gallon they have achieved in similar cars, with hypermiling clubs springing up in American cities – there is even one in Houston, home of the American oil industry.
Others have caught the bug. Owners of the Toyota Prius petrol-electric hybrid have become obsessive about achieving the most miles per gallon, monitoring the displays of energy flows and consumption at regular intervals on their cars’ dashboard displays.
To capitalise on this interest in frugal motoring, carmakers are having to rethink their traditional marketing campaigns – normally based on performance, looks and status – and come up with something different: making fuel-saving fun.
They are taking cues from electronic gadgets and computer games. Honda said that the inspiration for its Eco Assist feature was the Tamagotchi digital pet, a hand-held toy that needs constant care and attention from its owner.
Eco Assist is included in the Honda Insight hybrid, a new model similar to the Prius, but cheaper. It is designed to encourage gentle, smooth driving, avoiding sharp application of the accelerator and brakes, thereby delivering the best fuel consumption – which for the Insight can be up to 80mpg.
An electronic display at the centre of the instrument panel has a horizontal bar graph depicting fuel consumption, where optimum economy is achieved by keeping the bar at the centre line. Above it are electronic representations of green shoots – the more showing, the more frugal the driver. Outstanding results lead to a plant blooming.
When you turn off the engine at the end of a journey, the Insight provides an “eco score” and compares it with previous trips, rewarding improvements with a digital garland and trophy or admonishing heavier-than-usual footwork with a withering plant.
In Japan, Insight owners are able to transmit their results to a data-base by mobile phone and check whether they are in the day’s top 20 eco-drivers. In Britain, Honda is looking at setting up a similar online community and has started out by establishing a “mpg challenge” at its dealerships, awarding £100 gift vouchers for the best results achieved during Insight test drives.
Fiat has already established Eco-ville, a virtual world where the height of achievement is measured by mpg league tables. Its Ecodrive programme – which owners of the latest versions of the 500, Punto, Qubo and Bravo can download free – monitors the way the car is driven and makes a record of journeys on a USB stick. The data can then be analysed on a home computer to provide an “eco index”.
As well as providing contact with like-minded drivers, the Fiat site provides data on fuel consumption, carbon-dioxide emissions, cost savings and hints on how to improve your eco performance.
Fiat said that the average driver, with the habits of a motoring lifetime, achieved 60%-70% of the optimum score but that ratings improved by at least 10% after a few days of on-screen monitoring and coaching. It is piloting a “green test-drive” scheme at 10 London dealerships to demonstrate Ecodrive.
Other manufacturers have offered tuition in economical driving as a way of emphasising their commitment to reducing fuel use and carbon-dioxide output. Earlier this year, several hundred drivers took a 45-minute test with an expert instructor from the Energy Saving Trust in a scheme organised by Ford Retail, which runs the carmaker’s own 38 UK dealerships.
Virtually all the volume carmakers now offer special eco models that emphasise fuel economy and drop into a lower road-tax band than the standard versions. Typically, these have low-output diesel engines, high gearing, low-rolling-resistance tyres, and an indicator to show the optimum gear-change points.
With carbon-dioxide figures below 100g/km, three of these, the Ford Fiesta Eco Netic, Seat Ibiza Ecomotive and Volkswagen Polo Bluemotion, are exempt from road tax.
In the past, such frugal models, which tend to be more sparsely equipped than mainstream cars at a similar price, have not proved popular. However, with tax as well as fuel-cost benefits, more environmentally conscious buyers are coming forward: Bluemotion accounted for 7% of the 35,700 Polos sold in the UK last year and Ford reports that 5% of Focus sales are of the Eco Netic version.
Manufacturers are keen to sell these eco models because they need to reduce the average carbon-dioxide output of their cars to 130g/km to meet EU regulations that come into force in 2012. Those rules also expect an additional 10g/km carbon-dioxide reduction from a variety of other measures, including low-energy air-conditioning systems, improved traffic management and education in driving economically.
Charging points for electric cars
DRIVERS of electric vehicles are always complaining there are not enough public charging points in London – and those that are available are always in use.
The shortage is easing, thanks to Elektromotive, a Brighton company that is installing more points in a partnership with the French energy group EDF, owner of London Electricity.
Elektromotive says it should have 100 charging points in London by the end of May and 300 nationwide by the end of the year.
The points are easy to use – you need a special access key provided by the company, and then you just hook up your car. They will work with most types of electric car, and also the range of plug-in hybrids under development by Toyota and other carmakers.
If you want to find your nearest charger, look at
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Budget will make or break renewable energy

The Sunday Times
April 12, 2009
Danny Fortson and Dominic O’Connell

INDUSTRY LEADERS have warned that this year’s budget will “make or break” Britain’s struggling renewable-energy sector.
The Treasury has been flooded with demands for several billion pounds in funds that industry says it needs to stave off the collapse of sectors like wind power and to jump-start fledgling industries such as electric cars and clean coal.
Executives fear, however, that chancellor Alistair Darling will disappoint when he reveals the government’s spending plans on April 22 because the parlous state of the public purse has left him with little money to plough into the sector.
Nobody has been more ambitious than the promoters of wind power. The British Wind Energy Association, the industry’s trade body, has told the government it needs at least £2 billion in tax breaks, increased subsidies or “green bonds” to fund building costs. If they don’t get help, power companies have warned that £12 billion of new wind farms, enough to power more than 1.3m homes, will be scrapped.
The predicament of the wind industry is similar to most of the renewable-energy sector.
Gordon Brown has called for a green-energy revolution, arguing that it will help to pull the economy out of recession through the creation of thousands of new jobs.
The credit crunch, however, has pushed up the cost of financing projects, while the appetite of investors to back new, risky technologies has dropped off sharply.
Industry executives argue that it is up to the government to fill that funding gap or risk seeing the revolution die before it is born.
Greg Barker, shadow energy minister, said: “The government has talked about creating a low-carbon economy. Unfortunately they have done next to nothing to deliver on it. Investment is close to collapsing right across the low-carbon sector and all the government seems to do is call for more consultations and host photo opportunities masquerading as ‘green job’ summits.”
He added: “I see no sign that this ‘green budget’ will be any different. What the UK energy sector needs is less talk and more action.”
The government has big decisions to make. Coal is a big issue. The Association of UK Coal Importers (ACI) has told the government it should bring forward its decision on the winner of its clean-coal competition. The government has pledged to fund the building of a pilot carbon capture and storage project, which promises to strip the carbon from emissions at coal-fired power stations and bury it underground. It is seen as a vital piece of the low-carbon energy mix because of the abundance of coal.
The decision, under which the winner will be awarded several hundred million pounds, has been delayed several times and is not now expected until the end of the year at the earliest. The government is also thought to be looking at paying for it with funds from a European Union economic-recovery package rather than using taxpayers’ money.
Smaller companies represented by the Renewable Energy Association have said they need £625m in subsidies and grants for an array of small-scale projects like those under the low-carbon building programme, which helps cover costs for solar-panel installation and micro-generation projects.
This month the government suspended the scheme and said it would return the remaining funds to the Treasury.
Samir Brikho, chief executive of Amec, the engineering firm, said the government should take this as an opportunity to make a “clear statement of their intent”.
“The chancellor could consider subsidies for wind and tidal power to make them more competitive and provide funding for studies into tidal projects in the Severn estuary and Pentland Firth,” he said. “Financial encouragement for environmentally sound biofuel plants, ones that do not divert produce from the food chain, would also be beneficial.”
There will be a few green shoots. The government is expected to offer £2,000 grants to encourage motor-ists to buy electric cars as part of a fresh initiative to stimulate the green economy. It will also reveal the broad outline of a £7 billion plan to install “smart” gas and electricity meters in all of the UK’s 26m homes. The meters allow homeowners to monitor their real-time energy usage and have been shown to reduce consumption.
Under the plan, each utility will install meters, and a telecoms group will handle the data.
What they want
Wind: £2 billion to build new farms
Low-carbon buildings: £625m for this and other small-scale initiatives
Electric cars: a £2,000 subsidy for buyers of electric cars
Clean coal: several hundred million pounds to build the first plant
Nuclear: new funding to build a long-term nuclear-waste repository
Oil: big tax breaks for North Sea oil drillers

Scottish tides could power computer farm

The Sunday Times
April 12, 2009
The Scottish first minister has said the firth has the potential to turn Scotland into the Saudi Arabia of tidal energy
Danny Fortson

For the past 16 years a rocky alcove on the shores of Stroma, one of the Orkney islands off the north coast of Scotland, has been the final resting place of the Bettina Danica, a 70-metre cargo vessel that ran aground in February 1993. All six crew were saved, but tugboats were unable to pull her back out to sea. After several attempts, they gave up.
Today all that is left is a rusting, crumpled hull, visible from passing ferries. It is not the only ship to meet such a fate. The remains of more than 60 vessels litter the rocks and seabed around this island, victims of the treacherous waters of the Pentland Firth. This stretch of sea between the tip of Scotland and the Orkney islands has some of the strongest tides in the world, created as surges from the Atlantic on one side and the North Sea on the other slosh through the strait that is only a few miles wide.
Yet shipwrecks aren’t all that lie beneath the roiling grey waters. Scottish first minister Alex Salmond has said the firth has the potential to turn Scotland into the Saudi Arabia of tidal energy, and the Crown Estates has begun an auction of parcels of seabed for tidal power developments. More than 40 companies are bidding.
Atlantis Resources, a small tidal turbine developer, is one of them. The company, led by Tim Cornelius, an Australian and former pilot of manned submersibles, has come up with a novel £400m project to build one of the world’s biggest tidal power plant there. Unlike other projects whose output would be pumped into the National Grid, Cornelius’s plan is to build a giant data centre onshore that would take all its power.
It sounds an off-the-wall idea, but one that he said tackles the biggest obstacle to development of Pentland Firth: its remoteness. Transporting power to areas of high demand, such as Edinburgh, would be costly. Even if it were possible, there is a nine-year waiting list for National Grid to connect a new project to the grid in Scotland – what Cornelius calls the GBQ, or Great Britain Queue.
To get round that he decided to bring demand to this remote corner of Scotland. “The Pentland Firth presented the perfect conundrum. It is far and away the most enticing tidal resource in the world but there is no way of connecting to the grid or exporting the power down to where the load was. We just couldn’t accept that there was no way to get this done,” he said.
After looking at several potential sources of demand, such as large industrial plants, he decided on a data centre because it is unobtrusive and power-hungry. Essentially large warehouses where companies can rent space to store servers, data centres consume huge quantities of energy – most of it goes to the equipment needed to keep the room cool. Low temperatures and strong winds in the area mean that less cooling equipment would be needed. Atlantis hopes to build about a kilometre inland at a greenfield site just below the Castle of Mey in Caithness.
It’s an ambitious project. The ultimate goal is to install 150MW of turbines at a cost of about £400m after a first trial phase of 30MW is built. This scaled-up version would include 150 turbines, at 1MW each, an offshore transformer platform and a single cable that would link to the data centre. A data centre that could consume 150MW, enough to power a small city, would put it among the largest in Europe.
Another power source would also be required. Cornelius said that, based on tidal patterns, the farm would produce about 70% of the centre’s energy needs. A back-up source that could be turned on when tides aren’t flowing would have to be built. Atlantis is discussing with farmers having a greenhouse warmed by the excess heat given off by the acres of computers at the site.
Several unknowns hang over the project. Nobody has ever tried to build an underwater industrial complex in the kind of conditions presented by the firth, where tides can reach up to 18mph or 30kph., and tidal technology is a long way from being proved. Angus McCrone of New Energy Finance said it was a good five years behind renewable technologies like wind and solar. “It is unclear how much tidal power farms will cost to build or operate. There are still too many competing tidal technologies today. We need a good decade of projects up and operating before it becomes clear which are the winners and how much they will cost,” he said.
The Scottish government is well aware of this. To attract developers, it passed a new subsidy scheme that from April 1 tripled the per-megawatt payout for tidal energy. For its part, the Crown Estate wants up to 700MW of tidal power – enough to power about 700,000 homes – to be built as an initial trial. If it works, the Crown will sell much greater areas of seabed. It estimates that up to 10GW of power, nearly a quarter of average UK power consumption, could be generated there.
Early signs are good. Norwegian renewables giant Statkraft recently led a $14m (£9.6m) cash injection into Atlantis and Morgan Stanley, an early backer, also pitched in. It is now Atlantis’s biggest shareholder with 49%.
Whether Cornelius can bring the vision to fruition is, for the moment, out of his hands. “It’s all about waiting for the Crown Estates. To get to the promised land, we need to get the okay from them first,” he said.