Peter Rhodes on a legendary dreamer, the problems of green energy and extracting power from loos

Myles na Gopaleen, you should be alive at this hour.

Fuel for the future?
Fuel for the future?

The great Irish columnist, also known as Flann O'Brien (and occasionally by his real name, Brian O'Nolan), ran an occasional series from the “Research Institute” which proposed a succession of unlikely inventions.

These included trouser pockets capable of holding four bottles of stout, a spring-loaded top hat designed to deflect falling roof slates and a device for hiding Ireland.

Some of Flann's inventions, including the personal portable thermometer and street lights lit by “practically odourless” sewage gas, have pretty much come to pass since his death in 1966. Yet even Flann in his wilder flights of fancy never envisaged a form of central heating which can best be described as cold heating.

As Whitehall scratches around for something to replace Britain's 20 million domestic gas boilers, much faith is being pinned on heat pumps.

These are semi-magical devices which work by drawing warmer air into cooler places. But as the Government's Climate Change Committee reported a few days ago, they don't do it dramatically.

In fact, for Britain to hit its climate-change targets, the heat pumps would have to operate 10 degs C cooler than existing gas-fired systems. And that sounds suspiciously like the difference between being toasty warm or perishing cold.

You may be green but you'll look blue. So is there nothing renewable and yet hotter? I can almost hear Flann O'Brien whispering from the Research Institute: “Go on, lads. Give the sewage gas a try.”

Still on energy, I was making inquiries about installing an electric boiler to replace our ancient coal-fired system.

First step, according to our power-supply company, is to upgrade our electrical system to suck more amps out of the pylons (or something of the sort).

This upgrading used to be a rare procedure but it's common these days as tens of thousands of Brits buy their first electric cars and want a recharging socket on their back wall. Home is where the ohms are.

The sums are intriguing. One pro-electric car website reckons the average cost for fully charging an electric car will be about £8.40.

That's a lot cheaper than filling up with petrol which costs about £60 for the average 50-litre tank. Another huge difference is that every 50 litres of petrol nets the Government about £29 in tax.

The switch from petrol to electricity is going to cost the Government an estimated £40 billion over the next 20 years. So how on earth will they recoup this cash?

Suggestions include raising road tax, pay-as-you-drive schemes and a vast extension of toll roads.

The AA is calling for “a national debate". Whichever way you look at it, it sounds expensive, unless the boffins can come up with something truly radical.

Which reminds me. Flann O'Brien's Research Institute once published “a proposal to generate jam from second-hand electricity.” If only it worked in reverse . . .

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