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Canal dreaming: solving the energy crisis

For a future with computers

Comment The canals of Great Britain. Falling into disuse. I mean, with an energy crisis looming, and a serious shortage of water in the South East, and a transport infrastructure geared to cheap oil, what possible purpose could an antiquated, Olde Worlde network of canals serve?

Apart from freeing up enough electricity to keep our computers alive, of course?

Put like that, it's obvious that someone could do some joined-up thinking here. The trouble is, the people involved are not going to share a world view.

To me, the time of peak oil - either last year, or by 2010, depending on which school you follow - is the last opportunity to do really major infrastructure work - investment in the future. The money won't be spent, though.

Here's my plan!

First, look at the amount of heavy goods and rubbish we shift by road. Landfill trucks, sand trucks, building materials trucks; steel, chemicals, fabrics, fuel trucks... things which really don't have to get anywhere in 24 hours, or even 48 hours. The energy it costs to shift them is huge.

And if they were on a barge, a teenager could pull it along - even if it had several tonnes aboard.

I know a lot of canal fans who would really like to see the canal system expanded. They are part of the problem: the old canal system just doesn't go everywhere. And even if it did, it isn't wide enough to take the volume of traffic that needs to be carried. What's needed is a genuine industrial age canal system: wide, busy, bustling with traffic.

They'd hate it.

Sadly, the features that make the canals attractive to canal enthusiasts today are false nostalgia. When the canals were actually built, they were commercial ventures. Today, they are nature reserves, fishing venues, holiday locales. You rent a quaint old narrowboat, turn the single-cylinder diesel engine on, and chug placidly through a rural landscape, stopping each night at a different pub.

But the water problem may be bigger than they are.

They key to the issue is energy, of course. The thing about canals is that they have to be level to function as low-energy networks. If you have a lot of cargo to raise using a system of locks, you use stored gravity - "potential energy" to pour water from the upper level to the lower level. It's pretty easy - as long as you have plenty of water on the up-hill side.

What makes the idea attractive, is that there is a shortage of water in the low-lying areas of Britain which lie in the South East - where most of the population happens to be. So logically the problem isn't a problem: you pour water into the canals in the high areas like the Lake District and Wales, where rainfall is seldom a scarce - and it runs steadily down hill until it reaches the parched reservoirs around London.

And in the process, it carries cargo of the non-perishable variety.

There's another plus to the idea: wind power. It turns out that there's a problem to the technology of using wind turbines to generate electricity. Windmills are not ideal for power generation. They only generate it when the wind blows - which may not be when you want the power. And electrical power is not easy to store in large quantities.  

Oddly, one of the best ways of storing electricity, is pumped water storage. You use the spare power to pump large amounts of water up the hill; and when you want power again, you let it run back down the hill, through your generator: good old hydro-electric technology. And even more oddly, if you use windmills to pump water, they are surprisingly good at it. They work well, even if the wind isn't at the optimal speed.

Well, it all seems to fit together, doesn't it? And similar arguments apply to many modern Western economies. Precipitation is concentrated in the mountains and needed in the plains. A water distribution system which is also an energy distribution system and a transport system sounds like a no-brainer.

Of course, there are huge costs. Canals dug out by navvies and designed to allow no more than two narrow-boat vessels to pass each other are hopelessly inadequate for the sort of traffic that an industrial age generates; they'd have to be not just widened fourfold, but extended into areas where digging tunnels is terrifyingly expensive, even with cheap fuel.  

Even more daunting, are the real estate costs. When the first canals were built, most of the land they dug through was "free" - the same areas are now suburbs, where each house costs a significant fraction of a million dollars.  

The arguments need to be started, soon.  

What I'm afraid of, is that the people in charge will feel that this is no way to get popular. It won't be, either.  

But the alternative is to end up with an infrastructure which regards people as the free resource. Peasant, serf labour can build canals, sure. If we let our industrial infrastructure collapse, there will be no shortage of ex-bankers, ex-stockbrokers, ex-programmers, ex-industrialists, all of whom will become attractively slim doing aerobics with pick and shovel.

Except, of course, if it's your job to dig holes, you can't say: "My coach reckons I should take it easy with the weights this week, until the niggle in my elbow passes off..." and you end up with arthritis at 40.  

So if I'm right, we have a great future as a peasant economy, a provider of unskilled physical labour for the benefit of a few people whose capital accumulation leaves them in control of the wealth of the nations. That's "we" English, Americans, Austrians, Australians, and even Canadians.  

Money isn't what makes the world wealthy. It's energy that does that. The amount of energy that a human generates is pitiful - you'd have trouble keeping a 50W light bulb lit with the power of your legs.  

And there's no doubt in my mind at all, that we will get some power for our civilisations, from nuclear sources. The debate will mean that inevitably, we leave it too late, and have a period where we burn sulphur-rich coal and chop down forests to keep warm, and then go nuclear anyway. But we need power! - and not just for heating homes.  

Specifically, computers take electricity to work.  

The power requirements for an Internet Hotel, as we used to call them, are staggering. The amount of electricity used by personal computers, even portable notebook machines, is well beyond what you'd be prepared to generate from a treadmill. And have you actually felt the front of a wide-screen 37-inch high definition colour display?  

To me, the computer age brings freedoms which are good for humanity. I don't want to see us burning oil to cart urban trash up a hill, when the oil is needed as a raw material for the plastics industry. Imagine (for example) the unpleasantness of garbage which isn't sealed into plastic sacks - that's where we are headed.  

Surely, the energy budget of the personal computer will drop as new technology emerges. I could preach for hours on the new generation of e-paper displays, and the growing power of the mobile phone - but ultimately, you need huge quantities of electricity to have a digital world.  

And that means spending less energy on transport and water distribution. And if that means using canals for industrial, not just recreational purposes, I say "let's do it."  

If you agree with me, I've set up a temporary forum called "canalways" where we can take this further. And if you disagree, you should join in!®

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