Kelvin on Power

Published

Credit: Flickr / Dun Deagh

David Friday
Writer

Over a 100 years since Lord Kelvin predicted the demise of coal, David Friday examines how accurate some of his other powerful predictions were

Lord Kelvin, the enigmatic and never outspoken physicist, is a fixture of Glasgow University. From his statue in Kelvingrove Park to his house on Professors’ Square that boasts the honour of having the first electric lights in Scotland, he is very well remembered.

However, how did he foresee the world to come, and how right was he? Luckily for us, on a trip to America in 1902, he wrote an article asking, “When all the coal on earth is used, what then?” Within the article, Kelvin describes a possibly bleak future for humanity. He described a world where we would have to reconsider our power generation from the ground up. So what did he envisage?

“Each agriculturist will have his own reservation where the family fuel will be grown; a new industry will be born – the cultivation of fuel.”

Growing biomass for fuel seems a common idea today, but for Kelvin it was something every farmer would have to yield their land to. In Britain, the use of biomass for fuel is significantly on the rise, with 2% of all cropland in 2014 being given over to biomass production. This equates to a staggering 122 thousand hectares of agricultural land. Alongside this, some of the largest coal producing power stations in the country such as Drax, in West Yorkshire, are slowly converting to biomass only, with UK reliance on coal for power generation being predicted to end by 2050.

“Every building could be supplied with its own windmill, to use the motive power that wanders.”

Possibly a more controversial statement in today’s climate, with many local schemes being challenged across Britain for reasons of beauty and wildlife conservation, it is still hard to deny the benefits of wind power on a large scale. Last year alone wind farms on and offshore, along with other renewable sources, supplied 68.1% of Scotland’s power needs across the year. However, since efficiency comes with size, Kelvin’s vision of a turbine on every building falls short of helping improve the efficacy of renewable sources today.

“Then the lightened ships will be fitted with the masts and sails of the old sailing days.”

Finally, looking to transport, Kelvin saw the end of shipping and a return to times of lightened ships and sail. Although I doubt this will ever be the case, I suspect he would be delighted to know that in 2012, off the coast of Namibia, a sailboat reached a record-breaking speed of 68.1mph. This may be slow compared other modes of transport, but still a staggering technological achievement.

In his article, Lord Kelvin painted a bleak picture of our world without coal and while some aspects of his vision do not fully match today’s reality, some of his observations hit surprisingly close to home. Indeed, Kelvin did not anticipate the terrible role that coal abuse would play in climate change today, but he did understand that such natural resources are finite and that alternatives need to be found before this scarcity triggers the death of our industry. Much like many of us today, Kelvin saw in renewables the future of energy and, hopefully, his vision continues to inspire us and generations to come in the fight for a sustainable future.