Posted on  UTC 2022-09-01 02:01

27.09.2022 – Control rooms, then and now

Armchair cultural historians – that is, everybody over the age of fifty – should compare and contrast the video recording of the NASA control room during the last, critical minutes of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon in ZZZ with the recording of the NASA control room during the impact of the zzz with the asteroid ZZZ. Here they are.

There are many things to notice in the comparison of these two clips, but we shall restrict ourselves to a few broad brush strokes.

Firstly, in ZZZ, the personnel are exclusively white, male (with one exception), white-shirted, with haircuts we called 'short back and sides'. Utterances are short, military in style, calmly serious and without emotion. We can safely assume that the personnel are excited to be part of this epic historical moment, but all such excitement is repressed in favour of the task at hand and the tremendous concentration it demands. There are a lot of people in the control room and a lot of consoles.

23.09.2022 – The evisceration of Switzerland

Having decided in the green dreamtime post Fukushima to switch off Switzerland's atomic power stations, the Swiss government is now scratching its collective heads wondering where the country's electricity is going to come from.

The simultaneous demonisation of fossil fuels and particularly the motor vehicles that consume them will push even more demand onto the Swiss 'smart grid' – which is looking anything but smart at the moment. No amount of smartness can bypass the iron first law of electricity grids: input must equal output. Put another way: there must at every second be sufficient supply to meet demand.

Switzerland has nothing apart from hydro-electric power with which to generate electricity reliably – all fossil fuels have to be imported.

How history plays with us human mice! How long ago was it – a decade or so? – that the Swiss were coming to regard their hydro-electric generation as a technical and financial albatross around their necks – Sooo last century! At that time, electricity in the European network was cheap and plentiful – so cheap that hydropower plant owners could not compete with the Dreckstrom, the 'dirty electricity' from German coal and lignite plants and the compromised electricity from French nuclear reactors. Those days when the hydro-electric plants could shower those living in their water catchment areas with payments for allowing the rain to fall on their land and then run off into a dam had long gone; the huge infrastructure costs for the initial construction during the twentieth century industrialisation of Switzerland could no longer be amortised. Even the desperately needed maintenance of now ageing infrastructure could no longer be afforded. The private companies running these plants were fine when profits could be produced in a high-price, highly rigged environment, but when the losses came along the government had to step in.

Since hydro-electric generation cannot supply all of the country's electricity needs and no one in the Swiss government wants to burn more of those disgusting fossil fuels than absolutely necessary, the great green plan was to go for renewables and to make up the shortfall over the electricity connectors with the country's European neighbours, who could then have the task of burning disgusting fossil fuels and racking up their carbon dioxide emissions or running dangerous atomic reactors, leaving Switzerland itself clean and green.

Unfortunately for this plan, the feature that is the Alps turns out to be a bug, since the Swiss are short of flattish land, which in turn means that there are no places where a reasonably-sized cluster of wind turbines can be erected. The costs of putting just two or three on a mountain top for a trivial energy return are too high even for green Swiss brains to contemplate, as are the political problems of setting them up in the overcrowded and relatively windless lowlands.

The only other current strategy is to cover every bit of roof and exposed ground with solar panels. With fuel shortages, rocketing energy prices and the very real possibility of blackouts on the 'smart' grid, the country is now in a dash for solar. A couple of weeks ago installing solar panels was a voluntary option sweetened by government cash; now it's an obligation. The green brains of the government have yet to explain how solar energy – that very definition of unreliable power generation – will solve the supply problem.

Explain it they never will, because the iron law of 'renewable' energy sources is everywhere and at all times valid: for every gigawatt of wind or solar installed, a gigawatt of despatchable energy – usually gas generation, which can be switched on and off quickly – has to be installed. And then some, to cover times when the despatchable generation happens to be offline for maintenance. The more renewables you install, the more gas generation you need.

The current Europe-wide shortage of gas is only in a very limited sense the 'fault' of President Putin's restriction of supply in response to the West's sanctions against. The fundamental cause is the ever greater demand for gas as a backup for the ever greater numbers of renewable – that is, erratic – generators being brought online. The green agenda demands that these unreliable generators be given priority in supplying electricity, hence the mad scramble to switch on gas generation when renewable generators give up generating for indeterminate periods.

That is why a strategy of simply ramping up solar generation without equivalent backup generation is at best stupid, at worst fraudulent. It only serves to increase demand for gas.

It is a remarkable irony to see the green luddites waiting in radiant hope that at some time in the future, despised technology will rescue their daydream through the discovery of a viable energy storage system. Until then it's gas, gas, gas, however strategically vulnerable.

It is a grim spectacle, though not without some humour, to watch the once confident chickens of the Swiss government now scurrying headlessly about the farmyard in panic looking for some desperate remedy for their plight.

In the search for energy, no cow is now sacred: areas of outstanding natural value and beauty which the Swiss have protected for generations have now had that protection withdrawn. Windfarms and solar, however uneconomic and unreliable, and hydro-electric dams, however uneconomic, will now be built unopposed in places that were once considered to be the soul of Switzerland. No alpine meadow, no woodland, no pine forest, no biotope, no mountain crag is now safe from despoilation.

That the Swiss of all people should now allow themselves to be subject to the firm smack of central government is a bit of a surprise – but only a bit of one. Even your author can remember a time when Swiss citizens thought of themselves as firstly citizens of a town or village, then citizens of their canton and only then, a very definite third, citizens of the Swiss Confederation. For example, a foreigner who wants to become a Swiss citizen hands his or her application in to the relevant town or village council. It is ultimately they who decide the issue (albeit within the parameters, in this age of asylum and migration, set by the state).

Thus there was a time when the federal and cantonal governments were respectful of local sensitivities and wishes. Now they crack the autocratic whip, just like any other Western government. The COVID panic accelerated this centralisation: at the start of the pandemic, each canton had its own prevention rules covering mask wearing, socialising etc. That soon gave way to a subservience to a unified set of directives from central government. The 'Climate Emergency' is a further great opportunity for central government to take control.

In 1975 the Swiss writer Urs Widmer published a book called Schweizer Geschichten, 'Swiss Stories'. It is an odd book – you might even say 'weird' – but in an Afterword he concluded with an impassioned outburst about the direction his beloved Switzerland was taking. His words are as valid then as they are now, almost half a century later.

But I also love Switzerland. … The Alps are still the Alps, even though every second stream has been redirected through a tunnel to a hydro-electric dam and the alpine farmers have been gradually retrained as alpine gardners, who receive a subsidy for ever cow above an altitude of two thousand metres. Just because Switzerland is so beautiful it pains me to see how quickly it is being ruined by speculation. At least Germany needed a world war to produce such hideous cities such as Frankfurt. The Swiss are managing to do it in the midst of peace. It is horrible to watch.

Aber ich liebe die Schweiz auch. … Die Alpen sind immer noch die Alpen, auch wenn jeder zweite Bach für einen Kraftwerksee durch Stollen umgeleitet wird und die Bergbauern langsam zu Alpengärtnern umgeschult werden, die Subventionen für jede Kuh über zweitausend Meter Höhe bekommen. Gerade weil die Schweiz so schön ist, tut sie mir manchmal leid, wenn ich sehe, wie schnell sie kaputtspekuliert wird. Deutschland brauchte immerhin einen Weltkrieg, um zu so scheußlichen Städten wie Frankfurt zu kommen. Die Schweizer schaffen es mitten im Frieden. Es ist schlimm anzusehen.

Switzerland is no idyll, just a huge building site. The Swiss are currently engaged in concreting over the Alps. At some time they will wonder why no tourist wants to see their artificial Nature.

Die Schweiz ist keine Idylle, sondern ein großer Bauplatz. Die Schweizer sind gerade dabei, die Alpen zuzubetonieren. Irgendwann einmal werden sie sich wundern, daß kein Tourist mehr ihre Kunst-Natur haben will.

Widmer was not alone in these views. Many Swiss artists and thinkers of that period were shocked by this process of concreting over the natural Switzerland, but all opposition was stifled or simply came to nothing. Nowadays we have the insane paradox of pouring more concrete and spreading more asphalt in order to widen roads sufficiently to accommodate cycle lanes so that the cycling tourist can pedal anywhere in safety.

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