Power to the people

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Architect Don Bunting

Architect Don Bunting muses about power usage and the planet.


John Lennon’s 1971 song Power to the People was an impassioned cry for political power for the young and disenfranchised.

Just three years earlier I had been caught up in the first of the student demonstrations in the Rue St Michel in Paris.

There I saw the power of the French police being used in an unnecessarily brutal fashion against a few thousand unarmed students led by Daniel Cohn Bendit, later known as Danny the Red.

Crouched inside the glass frontage of a cafe, I watched the glass bend inwards as the police crushed the students against the shop fronts before beating them with batons and marching them off to the waiting police buses. Not an experience I wish to repeat.

The Vietnam War was the main catalyst for the student uprising throughout Europe and the UK in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

However, there was also a general level of frustration that the voice of my generation was not being heard.

And one key concern was about nuclear proliferation, both peaceful in the form of nuclear power stations, and warlike in the form of American nuclear missiles being installed in many NATO countries.

Today we forget how real, at least to politicians, the threat of a war between East and West was.

A nuclear New Zealand

I suspect that few know that during the 1960s and 1970s the Government was investigating the potential for a 1000 megawatt nuclear power station on the shores of the Kaipara Harbour north of Auckland.

Unbeknown to most of the New Zealand population, engineering staff of the NZED were being enrolled in overseas training courses, and an undergraduate course in reactor engineering was established at the University of Canterbury.

The discovery of the Kapuni and Maui gas fields and a slowing of consumption growth allowed the proposed nuclear power proposal to be delayed, but even as late as 1976 nuclear power was still listed as one of the main options for thermal generation beyond 1990.

Fortunately, someone saw sense, and in 1977 shelved the idea for at least 15 years. By then political and public sentiments were such that the idea was quietly forgotten.

But we came very, very close to joining France (80% nuclear power generation) and other European nations on the nuclear pathway.

Energy use

In 2014, 39% of world electricity production was coal-fired, 22% gas, 17% hydroelectric, 11% nuclear and 5% oil. The remaining 6% came from a variety of sources, including renewables.

While concerns about global warming have highlighted the need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels for all energy uses, not just electricity production, there are no signs of any significant changes in the statistics of energy use occurring yet.

Yes, solar power is back on the table for residential consumption, and electric cars are becoming more prevalent and more affordable.

But both these small but important changes also place significant demand on power during manufacture.

And storage methods, specifically batteries, are expensive to make and require the use of lithium or other scarce minerals.

There’s lots of feel-good factor, but it’s unlikely to offer the complete answer to either our energy needs or provide an effective means of reducing the amount of CO2 and methane in the atmosphere.

What else are we doing?

What is the construction industry doing to reduce energy use and, in particular, reduce reliance on fossil fuels, directly or indirectly?

As far as I can tell, not very much at all. By far the most economic building is the one you don’t build.

A perfect example of this is the decision to build a large conference centre in Auckland. It’s just not needed for New Zealand companies or organisations; it’s simply too big and too expensive.

The idea seems to be that “if we build it they will come”.

The apparent intention is that by building a large conference facility New Zealand will suddenly become an attractive destination for large conferences by overseas organisations. Won’t happen.

There are more than enough overseas examples to show that these centres are uneconomic and seldom used more than a few times a year.

And surely the future, at least the future for the planet, should be virtual conferences. Imagine the saving in time and air travel alone if attendees remained in their own country and attended online?

A fictional truth

In Amor Towles’ novel A Gentleman in Moscow, he provides a grim picture of life in the early Soviet Republic:

“Thus was born the golden age of prefabrication, cement-walled, five-storey apartment buildings containing 40 square metre living spaces with ready access to communal bathrooms.

“So ingenious was the design of these new apartment buildings, so intuitive their architecture, they could be built from a single page of specifications — regardless of which way  the page was oriented.

“Within six months thousands had sprung up. And so systematic was their realisation you could mistakenly enter any apartment and feel immediately at home.”

An unlikely scenario for today you might think. But stroll through Auckland’s inner city streets — and no doubt other cities provide much the same view — and see that building cheap and shoddy blocks of apartments is alive and well in 2019.

They’re poorly constructed, likely to be ready for demolition within 30 years, and provide substandard accommodation for those who can afford nothing better.