Our energy system and the future


March 8 2012, Trafalgar Square at 8.30 in the morning. It is International Women’s Day. The weather is grey and people in winter coats hurry past on their way to work. I turn off along The Mall and into Carlton Terrace.

Located on part of the former Royal Garden of St James’s Palace, these great buildings house our most venerable scientific academy, The Royal Society. The Society formed during innovative years of the mid 17th century with the objective:

“to expand the frontiers of knowledge”

Today RS is a global scientific network, with a fellowship of academics from all areas of science, mathematics, engineering and medicine. I am here to take part in a conference entitled Governance: Challenges and Solutions for a Sustainable, Secure and Affordable British Energy System. The speakers today represent the energy system from all angles … from climate and energy research, economic and social research, transport, agriculture, renewables,  business small, business large, international trade, community innovation, green movement and  a whole load more.  All speakers on today’s agenda are women.

Our chair is Professor Catherine Mitchell, co-director of UK Energy Research Centre,  Energy Advisor to UK and International Governments and Professor of Energy Policy at Exeter  University. The UK is stretched between the urgency of climate science and the changing availability of resources, between short term and long term economics, between power and ethics.

The solutions the conference seeks must be based upon good science, good politics, good economics, taking into consideration food production, transport, trade, industry and survival. Energy is a system issue and, as Professor Mitchell eloquently explains, it cannot be solved by linear thinking.


The simple, mechanical definition of energy is the ability to do work. The sun is our primary source of energy, and directly feeds into wind, hydro and tidal power and various forms of bio energy including, of course, our own physical energy. Coming from the sun these energy sources are termed “renewable.”  Fossil fuels are termed non renewable, because societies have consumed them at such speed that the rate of regeneration is negligible. The uranium mines will not replenish themselves, and we are a long way off a sustainable method of extracting uranium from seawater.

The balance side of the energy system in Britain today is energy use. Consumption of energy is something which, in many respects, we have far more ability to control through, for example,  energy performance of housing, sustainable transport systems, energy efficiency and even restricting/prioritising use of resources.  Regulations are heavily contested, especially by large, carbon heavy businesses and via the media. So energy policy, in response to today’s challenges, has tended to return again and again to the “big fixes” such as nuclear power, or, more recently shale gas and tar oil, whilst accepting energy demand forecasts for a traditional growth economy.

Meanwhile, science confirms that human activity is causing global warming. Whilst it is not yet clear exactly how much or how quickly the earth will warm, the extreme views of climate “deniers” are scientifically without merit and too weak to be convincing. The UK is therefore committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Just how the UK should meet this goal is less clear and has become something of a battleground for energy companies representing nuclear, “clean” coal, “ethical” tar oil, “transition” gas etc. This would not be such a problem

“ if ministers and civil servants wielded their power to base policy on evidence rather than influence”

But  even in this big fix arena, we still have choices. The French company, EDF, set out in 2006 a nuclear new build to provide for Britains electricity needs, and, it is widely rumoured, helped to kick off the anti wind movement. Some environmentalists have come round to nuclear, but questions about risk, responsibility, affordability and long term storage of radioactive waste still need clarification. And there are now serious questions about whether this country can bring sufficient nuclear generation on stream within the time frame.

Why then, aren’t we doing better on energy saving? Baroness Worthington outlines the limitations of the current cap and trade scheme, designed to control carbon emissions … but isn’t this about being realistic, as a nation, as well?

The forthcoming Green Deal scheme should help us implement energy efficient measures in households across the UK, but, we learned, this scheme is also stretched between the oft diverging interests of big business, people and planet.

Kate Smith, who sits on the board of somewhere between  UK Government Relations and an oil company, does not take part in the conference. She appears on the final panel for the first time, to make a case for the mining of shale gas  as a  “transition” fuel. And then there’s clean coal. Or is there? In April 2009 the UK government annonced that no new coal plants could be built in the UK unless they were “Carbon Capture ready.”. At one point, I found myself sitting next to the Policy Director at a powerful multi-national associated with clean-coal technology and so I asked  her what “Carbon Capture ready” means. “It probably means they have a field” she answered and then looked away.

So what do people want? We hear a lot about anti wind, but does that mean people want nuclear? Or tracking, or tar oil from Canadas boreal forests? Do we really want to drill in the Arctic instead of commiting to an enduring energy system, where supply is balanced by use?

Investigations by UKERC and reports in the Guardian find that in countries where they are redefining policy, focussing on renewables combined with energy efficiency, carbon is being cut and this can slowly help re-establish energy security and economic stability. It’s a more systematic, rather than linear approach.

If we are serious about giving our children something viable for the future then we have to change. THta is really the finding of today’s conference. Above all this is about a change from linear solutions to systems that are able to remain balanced. No amount of PR and spin will hide, in the end, a depleted world.



One thought on “Our energy system and the future

  1. Its funny that as USA petrol prices edge up to £3 a gallon Obama is being blamed and accused for some liberal conspiracy- the reality is that fossil fuels were once plentiful, easy to get out of the ground and therefore cheap. Cheap energy equates to cheap food and cheap clothes and, well, cheap everything. Nuclear energy is old technology and although the fuel is cheap building power plants, even after 55 years, is expensive and that is with decades [and future decades] of subsidies. I keep track of climate denialist comments and blogs [for some perverse reasons] who proclaim shale gas is the cheap future for energy or thorium nuclear or magic moonbeams yet the reality is less positive. According to the US Department of Energy, Britain has enough shale gas to fuel the country for 56 years. However, the British Geological Survey says there is only enough shale gas to last 18 months, the shale gas revolution has more to do with selling the dream to investors than actual reserves. Thorium nuclear and the magical fusion nuclear are at best 30-50 or more years away.

    Peak fossil fuels- the point when discovery is out stripped by demand happened decades ago- a reason deep water oil drilling or shale gas or tar sands has become viable. Consumption in the developing world [and population] will push that shortfall at an accelerating rate so whether we like it or not the world economy will be forced to adopt a low carbon future within our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

    The reality is also not going to be green- the most environmentally friendly friends of mine consume huge amounts of energy and if not directly it is indirect with imports of foreign goods [ebikes!], green homes, and organic food [yep if you can’t weed with chemicals it requires fuel]. The future will be more expensive and it makes more sense to develop better energy efficient homes, wave, wind and tidal [leave solar for the south], save oil to make all those useful plastics [trying making a laptop out of hemp] and invest in the future. But to get there CCS of gas/coal will be the only effective method. It costs, anything between 10-40% energy produced increasing the price by the same amount on top as well as the ever increasing cost of fuel.

    The real solution is to reverse the petrol economy- to work near where you live, to have local shops and suppliers, local schools- hospitals-the list is extensive but it ends up being more expensive.

    Good bye cheap energy- it was fun whilst it lasted.


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