Clarkson on: electricity
Thirty years ago in South Africa, there was white power. Then there was black power. And now there is no power.
No really. There isn’t. The electricity-generating company over there has just announced that the power stations are not capable of meeting demand and that there will be outages for two, three or six hours a day for at least the next seven years.
So far as I can see, no one is asking why this has happened. Everyone suspects it’s because the power company, since it took over the reins from De Boer Pik Racist, has been operating a policy of only employing black people. So the whites, the ones who know how to run a power station, have left the job of generating electricity to a bunch of guys who don’t know how to.
No one’s actually saying that of course. It’s a political potato so hot that you’re going to get your fingers burned if you even whisper such a thing. And anyway, working out why the country’s run out of juice is nowhere near as important as working out what the bloody hell you can do about it.
I’m old enough to remember the power cuts we had in Britain when Ted Heath went to war with Johnny Miner. They were great. You had newspaper clippings on the wall telling you when the lights would go out so you could plan your supper accordingly. And when they did go out, all you really lost was the television, which only ever showed grown-up crap like Panorama anyway.
This meant your parents were forced to play Monopoly with you by candlelight, and as a child, that was epic. Sitting huddled round a coal fire, warm and comfortable, with the undivided attention of your Mum and Dad. I get a warm, melted-toffee tummy just thinking about the joy of it all. And I still remember the sadness I felt when Heath gave in and the lights came on again.
Today, however, things are extremely different, and not just because I’m an adult. Because when you lose power today, you don’t just lose a 40-watt bulb and Robin Day in a black-and-white beehive. You lose absolutely everything.
I was in South Africa last month when the lights in my hotel room flickered and died. So did the TV and so did the aircon. And so did the phones. And so did the wall sockets that were being used to charge my laptop. And so did my mobile. If I’d had an iron lung, that would have gone too.
But I don’t have an iron lung, so I toddled off into the city to do a bit of shopping.
Nope. Because today, most city-centre shops are in windowless malls, so when the lights go out, you have no clue what you’re getting. I wanted a rather nice framed butterfly, but fearful that I might actually be buying a washing machine, I felt my way back out of the shop again and gave up.
Not that I could have bought anything anyway, because the tills were down, and so were the remote credit card readers. Seriously, you have no idea what paralysis a power cut brings these days. Not even the stock exchange was working properly. And if you want a generator, you’d better have nice tits and loose morals because frankly, that’s the only way you’re going to get one.
"When you lose power today, you don’t just lose a 40-watt bulb and Robin Day in a black-and-white beehive"
I found myself wondering, as I skipped up the darkened streets, past the gridlocked traffic, hemmed in and going nowhere because the traffic lights weren’t working, what on earth Britain would look like should such scenes be repeated there. Chaos, I don’t think is a big enough word.
I’d lose my computer, my PlayStation, my iPod, my coffee machine, my kettle and even the ability to get into my gun safe so I could shoot the looter who’d just come through the front door. The only good news is that all those sanctimonious fools who’d bought a G-Wiz would be stuck at home, unable to fill their stupid little car with juice.
You might think it won’t happen here, but if you look at what’s happened in Denmark, you’ll change your mind. Like good communists, the government has jumped on the eco bandwagon and carpet-bombed the nation with 6,000 wind turbines.
But together, they produce only 19 per cent of the nation’s power needs. And this is Denmark we’re talking about, which has a population of seven, a Lurpak factory and two blokes called Bang & Olufsen making everyone’s stereo thinner.
What’s more, not a single one of Denmark’s normal power stations has been closed down since the windmills were built. In fact, they are running at full capacity, 24 hours a day because Mr Bang and Mr Lurpak don’t want to be faced with darkness every time the wind drops. Which it does. Often, and without warning.
Of course, here in Britain, the government has sensibly decided to go down the nuclear route. But trust me on this, by the time the public enquiries are over, and they’ve dragged Swampy and his mates out of all the trees, America will have invaded Iran, buggering up the oil supply, the Russians will have turned off the gas, and we’ll be back in the Seventies, playing Monopoly.
The only possible way all this can be averted is by rounding up everyone who opposes nuclear power and shooting them. Unless, in the meantime, Honda comes to the rescue.
You may have read about the fuel-cell car they are running in California. Uncharacteristically, we even sang its praises on Top Gear. Unless that bit was edited out for not being funny. I can’t recall.
Anyway, the idea is that a company somewhere, possibly in Iceland where you only have to drill a hole in the ground and free electricity floods out, makes hydrogen. This is then stored. And then you, the motorist, buys a card and inserts it in your car. Once there, witchcraft happens, and the car moves.
I do not even begin to understand how hydrogen is used to make electricity and how that electricity is used to propel one tonne of car, but I do know this: all that comes out of the back is water. Pure, clean, drink-it-when-you’re-thirsty liquid silver. I also know that hydrogen is the most abundant entity in the universe.
Of course, you might think that this is all terribly dreary, that no matter how the electricity is produced, it’s still an electric car. That when all is said and done you’re still going to work every morning in a glorified G-Wiz.
Aha. But here’s the really good bit. You see the Honda they’re testing in America produces 100 kilowatts, which is a lot. And if the starting point for this technology is a nice round ton, you can only begin to imagine how much Porsche and Ferrari will be producing in the next 10 or 20 years. By 2028, you’ll be doing 200mph again.
Of course, you might think this has absolutely nothing to do with the complex business of providing power for your PlayStation and your iPod. But here’s the thing: even if I were to turn on every light in my house, and every appliance and every gadget, I’d barely use 10 kilowatts.
So the car, with its silent engine, could simply be plugged in to your meter cupboard, and Bob’s your uncle. Even the Honda we have now could generate enough of a zap to power the whole street. And forget having to stock up on Evian and Perrier. Simply attach a hose to the exhaust and sip from the fountain of Honda’s genius.
Back at the beginning of the 20th century, the motor car saved the world from the disease and pestilence brought on by having so much horse shit in the streets. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, it’s about to save it again.