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Nuclear versus solar - the great miracle fuel rematch

Half a century ago, in the aftermath of the Second World War, it was widely believed that the energy problems of the world had been solved. Atomic energy had been tested in war and had brought total victory.Now it was expected to don civilian clothes and go to work on the great task of reconstruction. It was confidently believed that the electricity generated by atomic energy would be so cheap that utilities would not even have to bill consumers for it.

This belief in the advent of a miracle fuel contributed to the rise of Modern architecture. Tower blocks; plate-glass windows; thin concrete walls and flat roofs with little or no insulation; indifference to orientation and exposure; the use of finished assemblies - all these elements flew in the face of tradition but were encouraged by the dreams of the energy industry. As a result, for more than a generation, new towns and cities, giant public housing schemes and many commercial buildings were designed by men who believed a new age of free heat, free light and free power was at hand.

But it was not. Instead the cost and complexity of nuclear power stations continued to rise, and fission refused to give way to fusion.Worse still, problems began to arise in connection with spent fuel and a series of minor accidents involving the release of nuclear radiation. Today, while nuclear power stations still generate 17 per cent of the world's electricity, almost nobody believes that nuclear power is safe, let alone cheap - or free.

But what about the alternatives? In the early 1950s three experimental solar houses were built at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).Though they differed in detail design, all featured large south-facing inclined greenhouses enclosing rooms above heavily insulated tanks of water.

During the day, electric pumps circulated the water from the tanks through pipes in the inclined glass walls where it was heated by the sun. At night, or on chilly days, the pumps would circulate the still-warm water to maintain comfort. If the houses became uncomfortably warm, windows or vents could be opened, or blinds could be pulled down.As for the electricity to run the pumps, it was suggested that it could be generated by a big propeller on a mast, turning in the wind.

For years after the early MIT buildings, versions of these houses were built all over the world.

Their basic design principle, 'mass under glass', became a slogan of the alternative technology movement. In the 1970s a similar dwelling was built in Milton Keynes.

'Couple in sun-heat house frizzle at 158 degrees, ' read the headline in the Sunday Express in the summer of 1974. The newspaper story chronicled the ordeal of a family that had volunteered to 'test drive' the first solar-powered public-sector house in Britain.Designed by a team of polytechnic lecturers from London, the house featured twin solar-heated, 1,000 gallon water tanks - one in a bedroom and the other in the living room. After a week of sweltering day and night, the solar pioneers fled and sold their story to the newspapers. Later the house was divested of its solar equipment and converted back into a conventional dwelling.

Stories like this have always dogged solar architecture but, because they generally refer to episodes of excessive heat, they tend to be dismissed by the man in the street. In a country like England, which sits on latitude 58¦ north - the same as Hudson Bay in the Canadian Arctic - excessive heat is not considered a problem unless it is experienced personally. Excess heat can always be dissipated. It is cold that should be feared, not heat!

Or so it was thought then.

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