The triumph of the electric motor over other drives has been great but not total. A notable failure has been in automobilism. Battery-powered cars were among the earliest ‘horseless carriages’ but the internal combustion engine won. Presentday enthusiasts believe that air pollution would be reduced if emission counter-measures were concentrated at power stations, as they could be if batteries supplanted internal combustion engines in road vehicles. That sounds plausible enough to me, though some analysts have cast doubt on it. Fuel cells might be better still.

Claims to have produced a winning electric car have made headlines from time to time, only to be forgotten after experience. However, Ford, DaimlerChrysler and other big players are developing new models and marketing some. An interesting example is the ‘Hypermini’, brought out by Nissan.

I first read about the Hypermini in a highly regarded UK newspaper. This publication’s motoring correspondent was most enthusiastic. He touched on the vehicle’s ‘new design of battery’ using lithium-ion cells. Produced by Nissan and Sony in combination, the battery boasts relatively low weight and high capacity. The car as a whole was praised by the correspondent for its lightness, performance and appearance.

But he was impressed less by the technical details than by the forbidding price and Nissan’s countervailing marketing strategy – the sales targets were to be local government and car-sharing organizations. One of the commercial projects envisaged was operation of Hypermini fleets by holiday hotels for sightseeing.

Users of Hypermini fleet services would book cars on line, collect them at unmanned stations with the help of smart cards, enjoy on-board satellite navigation aids, be warned if going beyond their range from a charging point, be told how much CO2 emission they were saving, and so on.

The new Nissan car ‘gives a whole new meaning to eco-tourism’, gushed the correspondent in a comment on the holiday hotel proposition. But he urged his readers not to forget that electric motoring is pollution-free ‘only if you ignore the fact that electricity is generated at a power station in the first place’. Perhaps to do his bit for a British campaign to improve popular understanding of science, he added: ‘Power stations, it should be noted, are considerably less efficient than internal combustion engines’.

That gives a whole new meaning to something or other, does it not?

Europe studies nuclear shelters

In the words of an article by a Swedish contributor to the IEC Bulletin, a periodical of the International Electrotechnical Commission, ‘The Baltic Ring Project, now under development in Scandinavia, is intended to link a variety of nuclear reactors surrounding the Baltic Sea into a powerful grid that will offer consumers low cost uninterrupted electrical service, no matter what the weather… The utility companies that operate these reactors launched the Baltic Ring project to gain maximum benefit through cooperation’.

The multifarious reactors working in countries around the Baltic are impressively listed in the article, which assures readers that IEC standards will help to guarantee that the plants will be operated safely. However, a reader or two may be prompted to wonder about broader issues. For instance, if there could be special benefits from an international grid of nuclear power stations, would not parallel logic recommend the tying together of all coal-fired stations in one region, all oil-fired in another; every gas-fired plant in this geographical area, every hydroelectric scheme in that; each combined-cycle complex in a group of states here, each diesel genset in a group there: and so on.

That would be a reductio ad absurdum, the reader or two may conclude; it would surely be ridiculous to devote a grid to any one species of generator. So he, she, or they will doubt the case for an all-nuclear grid even to IEC standards.

My own impression has not been that the ambition of the Baltic Ring Project is quite as seems to be implied by the phrasing of the IEC Bulletin article. I have seen instead desires to integrate the Baltic countries’ electricity markets and to strengthen other trading and political ties between western and eastern European nations. If I understand correctly the project is being studied by responsible echelons of the European Union and of some of its neighbours and possible future members.

But could the IEC Bulletin be on to something? Maybe an assortment of PWRs, VVERs, BWRs, BHWRs and RBMKs would indeed give Europe its most weatherproof grid.