By Callum Scott, Greenprint 2020 Steering Group member
The Earth’s climate is changing, that is an undisputable fact. Whose fault it is frankly irrelevant, we need to look at every aspect of how we as a society extract, transport and consume natural resources. One of the most hotly debated elements of this is to do with the way we generate electricity. Ever since the industrial revolution we have become increasingly energy hungry in our day to day lives and some would say victims of our own success. Not only does our infrastructure as whole need to adapt to become more resilient to deal with the extremes of Climate Change, it also has to be capable of generating clean electricity for the masses if we are to move away from being so reliant on the extraction of fossil fuels.
UK 2010 - Shares of net electricity supplied, by fuel input
Data supplied by DECC – DUKES Chapter 5: Electricity
One key thing to note is that every option for generating electricity there are pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses. For instance, wind farms are a great example of how we can harness the natural environment for our own needs; doing this is not a new idea, however to do it on an industrial scale requires a huge amount of land, and some would argue, destroys the local landscape. You could of course advocate the use of offshore wind turbines, but at a significant additional cost. Nuclear on the other hand requires a comparatively small amount of land to generate vast amounts of electricity and isn’t reliant on local weather conditions. Yet, the debate on how we deal with nuclear waste is a contentious one. If we were to go down the route of wave power, our national grid needs to be completely redefined from centralised power plants to a network of remote satellites. There isn’t a one fits all solution, local supply need only meet local demand and that should be met depending on local infrastructure, policy and climate.
This leads me to perhaps challenge one of the Greenprint 2020 visions which suggests we should look to step up imports of renewable energy from abroad. What I would challenge is why import, decreasing our energy independence, when we have the means to do it ourselves, creating jobs for a nation that has a tradition of engineering excellence? Conversely, I would agree (with the 2020 vision) that in order to account for the intermittency of some renewable energies, the grid needs to be smart, whether that is to bring in reserves from energy storage devices such as hydroelectric dams or simply to syphon excess energy from neighbouring generation facilities. Plenty to think about then.
It is easy to get caught up in the energy crisis and focus on where we are going to secure a clean, reliable source of energy but I would argue that our efforts equally need to be focused on how we consume electricity. It is all very well designing high-tech, super efficient new-builds but what about our aging housing stock that simply leaks the energy that has undergone such a complex, lengthy and resource intensive process just to be lost through inefficiencies such as a lack of insulation. That’s why Government incentives such as the ‘Green Deal’ will play such a fundamental role in reducing our dependency on energy consumption (see Paul’s blog), and also links nicely to one of the Greenprint 2020 visions by incentivising energy efficiency. To win over more people to a more sustainable lifestyle the economic case needs to be as strong as the environmental. Incentives should only be the ‘kick-start’ needed for the low-carbon industry to boom, even the Oil & Gas industry required enormous financial backing to bring to where it is today. There are similarities, they just have different drivers.
Cartoon by Joel Pett, Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, Cartoonists and Writers Syndicate, published on December 7, 2009 in USA TODAY
To conclude, I would like to leave you with this video which outlines, in a simplistic manner, our options for dealing with Climate Change. In essence, the ‘do nothing’ option is not viable, whether fossil fuels run out or not is besides the point, we should be harnessing the very thing we are trying to protect. Nature provides us with numerous options for tapping into an unlimited supply of energy, we just haven’t found the key (or combination of keys!) to unlock that potential.
Find out how you can take action and save energy today!