The Future of Energy

Before sitting down to write this post I made myself a cup of tea and a couple of slices of toast, and now I’m sat on the sofa with the lights on, my TV recorder whirring and my laptop plugged in.

Elsewhere in the house the kids are listening to their fully charged mp3 players, the fridge is humming, the dishwasher is taking care of the washing up and various plugged in electrical things are happily flashing their blue and red lights. A couple of months ago my gas central heating would also have been on, and tomorrow I’ll drive to work in my car.

As well as remembering where all the energy is going, it’s also worth considering that virtually all our energy is originally solar in origin. We should be grateful to the plants and algae of a few million years ago for chemically locking this energy up for us like some huge biological battery – after all these tiny organisms have built our modern civilisation.

Use of fossil fuels has always caused localised problems – from London’s pea soupers to LA’s smogs, along with acid rain, oil slicks, and the appalling moonscapes, so often the legacy of coal mining. But we’re now also well aware there are another two, far more serious, concerns caused by our reliance on fossil fuels: climate change and peak oil.

Perhaps back in the 1970s we could be forgiven for not seeing the first one coming, but it’s difficult to understand how we didn’t prepare for the second!

It’s almost forty years since Wally Broecker published his paper ‘Are we on the brink of a pronounced global warming?‘ in Nature, often cited as the first concern that rising atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion could add to the greenhouse effect and result in global warming. Despite the best attempts of a small group of skeptics, most of the world now accepts the scientific assessment that continuing to use fossil fuels risks will increase the rate of man made climate change.

The problem is that we’re addicted !

Our entire civilisation is reliant on cheap energy – to grow and transport our food, take us to our jobs, produce our material goods and power all our services. Many commentators have pointed out the massive shifts to our economy and indeed way of life that will occur when fossil fuels run out. Of course, it’s not exactly a question of running out – there’s quite a lot left in the ground, but its becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to obtain. All the easy to get at oil is long gone, leading to ever more novel and expensive sources being exploited: such as shale gas frackingdeep seabed oil extraction (as with Deepwater Horizon) and drilling the Arctic.

That we’re running out of fossil fuels is a fundamental point often overlooked by climate skeptics and those opposing windfarms. There might be enough uranium for a few hundred years at current usage rates, but it will only last a fraction of that if nuclear widely replaces fossil fuels.

What should we do ?

It doesn’t need Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the only reliable long term option is renewable energy – the clue’s in the name. If it isn’t renewable it will eventually run out, and with seven billion of us and rising, and everyone wanting to live like a New Yorker, that’s likely to be much sooner than we’d like.

The only truly renewable energy is that delivered every day by the sun – solar, wind, biomass, or by the moon in the case of tidal. The longstanding, but as yet unobtainable, dream of nuclear fusion (the same energy that powers the sun) would use seawater as fuel, and is therefore probably close enough to renewable to also qualify.

So how do we get from where we are now to a renewable future ?

We’re living in a time of transition, and it seems increasingly likely it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

We’re going to need to strike all kinds of balances:

- Doing what we can to manage the inevitable rise in the cost of energy to minimise the effects on  the most vulnerable in our society and around the world. At the same time we also need to discourage profligate energy use,

- Finding the money to invest in renewable infrastructure in a time of austerity, without further burdening the most vulnerable,

- Making difficult decisions in a pragmatic way about transition technologies, like shale gas fracking and nuclear power – both of which have significant risks and costs,

- Doing everything we can to reduce our energy usage; from increasing insulation and efficiency, to reducing travel and consumption,

- Investing heavily in scientific and technological development of sustainable technologies,

- Preparing possible plan Bs and even plan Cs in case we don’t manage to get to sustainable in time – such as carbon capture or geo-engineering,

- and perhaps most importantly avoiding a potentially devastating military grab for the dwindling energy supplies that are left

If we’re to stand any chance at all we’ll need to raise both the level of awareness and honesty in the current debate. As with any period of change, some people feel threatened, are in denial or have a vested interest in the status quo . . . those of us interested in a brighter future should try to ‘shine some real light into the debate’ wherever possible.

I know many of my readers have strong emotions on issues like fracking and nuclear power, but my own view is that unfortunately we’ve probably left it too late to manage a smooth transition to sustainable without both more nuclear and more shale gas fracking in the short term.

I’d love to be wrong, but I’m not alone in this assessment. It’s not that I’m some kind of a big nuclear or fracking fan, quite the opposite, but I don’t want affordable energy to just be the preserve of the wealthy or powerful either – with thousands more people dying from the cold every winter in the UK, not to mention millions more forced further into poverty and struggling to eat around the world as a result.

In the meantime it seems blindingly obvious to me that every rich country should be investing far more in sustainable infrastructure and measures to reduce demand.

If you haven’t yet done your good deed for the day, why not email your friendly neighbourhood politician and encourage them to do just that.

And then perhaps unplug some of your stuff.


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Photo by Charles Cook, via Flickr