Comment: Renewables could become our ‘one small step’
WHEN president John Kennedy stood to address the United States Congress in a special joint session on 25 May, 1961, he set in motion a chain of events that would lead to one of the defining moments of the 20th century.
He declared that America “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the earth”.
Although JFK didn’t live to see his vision come to pass, Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man” on 21 July, 1969, demonstrated what can be achieved when scientific and industrial endeavour is harnessed by political will. While the space race always has to be viewed against the backdrop of the Cold War, we are still enjoying the technological benefits today, from computers and heart pacemakers through to insulin pumps for diabetics and dental braces for awkward teenagers such as me.
Armstrong’s death at the weekend reminded us of a time when humanity could dream – and could make those dreams a reality. Landing people on the Moon was touted as just the first step, with missions expected to follow to Mars, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn and even planets orbiting around other stars.
Yet when I watched Atlantis touch down at Nasa’s Kennedy space centre in Florida last year – bringing an end to 20 years of space shuttle flights – my heart sank. Shuttle has gone the way of Concorde and the hovercraft, great technological innovations that captured the public’s imagination but have now been retired from service.
While shuttle may be obsolete – the story goes that Nasa’s spacecraft had less computing power than Nintendo’s Gameboy – there appears to be nothing on the horizon that will generate the same sense of wonder to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. Standing next to Mallard recently at the National Railway Museum in York, I had the same sinking feeling. The 1930s art-deco lines of the world’s fastest steam train can still thrill onlookers, but its achievements strike a note of melancholy – could British engineering reach for the same heights again?
For me, the answer lies not in the cold reaches of space – but out at sea. With a quarter of Europe’s tidal energy and a tenth of its wave power, Scotland is ideally placed to be at the forefront of the renewable energy revolution. Companies such as Aquamarine and Pelamis are already building demonstration devices, but there is still much work to do and opportunities for businesses to make their mark, not just in designing and building such machines but also in supplying the parts and services that will be needed to bring them into service.
In the offshore wind power arena, start-up companies like Edinburgh University’s Ngentec are coming up with ways of making turbines more efficient and more reliable, while established firms like Aberdeen’s SeaEnergy are positioning themselves to grab a slice of the service sector action.
Yet what seems lacking is political inspiration to look beyond the short-term parliamentary cycle and light the spark that JFK triggered with the race to the Moon.
While neither David Cameron nor Alex Salmond are going to be the next Kennedy, it will take his kind of strong political leadership to inspire a nation – perhaps in conjunction with international partners – to make renewables the next space race.
The Scottish Government may have been praised by environmental groups for its lead on alternative energy, but the apparent in-fighting between the Treasury and Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) at Westminster over recent changes to wind power subsidies does not bode well for when even bigger decisions have to be made, such as those on developing carbon capture and storage.
Creating the technology needed to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere will be essential to tackling climate change, not just for developed countries but also in emerging economies. When everyone in China and India wants to drive a car or use electricity – just like their cousins in Europe and the United States have – then why shouldn’t it be Scottish or British technology that hoovers up their CO2 emissions?
We may be facing a decade of austerity, but Mallard was born at the time of the Great Depression and the National Government, while JFK’s dreams of the Moon emerged from the 1950s post-war recovery.
Deutsche Bank move may trigger others to follow
NEWS that Deutsche Bank has become the first financial services firm to introduce rules allowing it to claw back bonuses paid to staff when they worked for previous employers - deferred parts of bonuses that have not yet been paid out - will certainly raise a few eyebrows.
Such a move could well be adopted by other lenders, keen to show bankers should be punished for past mistakes, no matter how long ago they occurred.
While clawing back bonuses always cheers campaigners, it won’t help to stimulate lending to firms crying out for cash.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North