From Cheltenham Science Festival.
“Is it possible to continue living in a civilized society, transporting ourselves around and still manage to avoid destroying ourselves and the world around us?” It’s not everyday you’re asked this question by Kryten. But Robert Llewellyn, the actor who played the mechanoid being in the TV series Red Dwarf, was on hand to pose it to an audience in Cheltenham earlier this week.
Llewellyn and Roger Kemp, an engineering expert from Lancaster University, both agreed that it is “possible, but difficult” to keep ourselves warm and still maintain a semblance of modern life.
In an energetic talk, Llewellyn put the case that we need to get over our addiction to burning things. “We just need to stop thinking: ‘Yeah, let’s get just all the oil of the earth that we can, and let’s even burn sand to get tar out of it, and let’s just keep burning things at all costs!’”.
He said the exhaust gasses in a average household boiler can be used to spin a turbine and generate 2500 kWh of power per year. This is not insignificant; an average house uses about 3300 units annually. This kind of solution might be a good way to keep warm whilst avoiding destroying the planet, he suggested.
Llewellyn has recently met a man who developed a glass manufacturing process which used no burning at all; counter-intuitive, since glass making is normally a process which requires immense heat. The new idea used an enormous lens to focus the Saharan sun onto the sand, turning it into glass. Llewellyn said this highlighted the need for a radical re-think of the way we do things.
Kemp and Llewellyn cited three factors as stumbling blocks to this kind of radical approach to keeping homes warm sustainably. To blame were disjointed policy approaches, a lack of skills among tradesmen and a general sluggish attitude in the wider population.
The lack of skills was an especially difficult area, said Kemp, as there is no single approach to make houses more energy efficient. A typical plumber does not have the know how to install a heat transfer system properly. Training more people in these skills would help, but since so many different approaches are needed for different houses, the study time required would be long.
“Most of the houses that will exist in the UK in 2050 have already been built,” said Kemp. And there are a whole range of houses, with different properties, which will need an assortment of technologies to keep them warm without costing too much.
Llewellyn informed festival goers that he has already started to embrace an attitude of non-combustion, as far as possible. “I drove the 26 miles to get here in a ridiculous-looking electric car,” he said. “Not at very great speed, but at least I didn’t burn anything to do it!”