Pulling Together


The Energy Problem

The UK is committed by law to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and to banning new Petrol cars by 2030 and new gas boilers by 2035. These are laudable aims, but are they achievable?

Such a massive change in our energy economy is only possible if we either reduce our energy consumption massively or increase our production of electricity, the fuel seen as replacing fossil fuels to enable the necessary changes. The challenge is enormous. We’re not facing a few percent, but trebling or quadrupling the electrical load. Not only would that require a threefold expansion of production, but a threefold increase in grid capacity to transport all that power around the country. Building a power line takes around a decade and involves taking swathes of land out of use along the construction route. To think we could treble the existing network in eight to twelve years looks impossibly over-optimistic. It would take that long just to assess where the lines would be needed and plan their routes and switching sites.

Then there is the small issue of where we are to obtain all this extra electricity. The idea appears to be from renewable sources such as wind and solar. This would be wonderful on windy sunny days when these sources would reach full output, but half the time the world is dark and wind speeds vary massively. We might still need power on a still night and that would have to come from somewhere. Electricity is difficult to store efficiently in quantity. Batteries look good until one considers their low capacity for their size. Weights and springs have powered clocks for centuries, but the power consumption of a clock is low. Even a tower clock in a church or town hall probably only uses a single watt. That’s 168 watt-hours for a whole week, or nearly six weeks for a kilowatt-hour. We’d need to store energy by the Gigawatt-hour to provide reliable power when production is low.

Given the lack of signs of serious political engagement with these issues it seems reasonable to assume these aims will not be met, so what will happen then? Will the government of the day pass new legislation? That’s constitutionally possible since no law can bind a future parliament, but is it politically possible? It would be an extreme embarrassment, although how extreme would depend on the party in power. It might be politically expedient to embarrass an opposing party which had made rash promises with no means of carrying them out, but less so in the case of the same party. Will the figures be fudged — “Of the cars sold this year, taking account of the ones scrapped, the additional new vehicles not replacing existing ones are all electric. In fact, we exceeded that target as it was achieved as early as 2028, two years ahead of our commitment”? Will the taxation class be changed to reclassify cars as electric models only, with a new class for traditionally fuelled ones which the government can then claim were never included in the original target? Maybe the target will be quietly dropped as the government concentrates exclusively on the latest emergency — the one thing it really must achieve to keep the public safe — “We have no option to do anything else!”

Then there are the international supply chains which will be needed to provide the raw materials for this revolution and the possibility of shortages frustrating the attempts to build the new machinery. We have to remember carbon emissions are not the only way to degrade or destroy the natural world. If we turn to a technology which poisons the rivers or denudes the rain forests, if we use something which depletes the Ozone Layer, if we fail to feed the growing population, these could also bring disaster. There is a danger of Climate Change becoming such a major obsession we forget it’s not the only threat we face needing a remedy before things go too far. Nor can we do this on our own. We have exported much of our pollution to China and India, but it matters not where it is produced. The whole world has only one atmosphere and it matters little where emissions occur. Reducing the UK component while it remains high in other places, producing goods and materials for our use, would be a wasted effort. If this is really important, the chances of success look poor. We need to try harder than this.

We had fifty years’ notice, but for those first fifty years we did nothing except cut back our infrastructure and export our industry. Now we realise the urgency we have no time to turn our economy round. We should have done this in the ’70s when scientists first started sounding the alarm, but it was nowhere near urgent then, so governments did nothing. In fact, they made things worse by going for short-term growth and cutting back the tools we needed to put things right. Now we have to face the fact what needs to happen will take too long, so we need to think about protecting the world from the consequences rather than putting all our faith in preventing the inevitable. In other words, as plan A looks less achievable, we need a plan B. Have we got one? Not so far as I know.

Maybe we should think about that... sometime.

About the Author

K J Petrie has a Full Technological Certificate in Radio, TV and Electronics, an HNC in Digital Electronics and a BA(Hons) in Theological Studies.

His interests include Christian and societal unity, Diverse Diversity, and freedoms from want, from fear, of speech, and of association. He is a member of the Social Democratic Party.

The views expressed here are entirely personal and unconnected with any body to which he belongs.

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