The world needs abundant, cheap, clean energy
In an extract from their new book, Energise!, James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky argue that climate change is real, but the answer is to invest boldly in new forms of power supply not moralise about personal consumption.
If the world could be more thoughtful about energy supply, individuals could be thoughtless about their energy use.
Irresponsible? No. We believe that climate change exists and is largely man-made. We accept that there’s a problem with greenhouse gases (GHGs). But we believe that these concerns must be seen in perspective.
Our starting point is the uniqueness of human beings. To us, humans will always want to do more than simply survive. They will always want more home comforts, better-lit streets and greater mobility. But to get all of this – now and in the future – they will need more, cheap energy. In energy matters, therefore, a far bigger and more urgent challenge than global warming lies in thoughtfully supplying the world’s populations and organisations with lots more cheap energy. If we can do that right, then we can overcome man-made climate change in the process.
Energy innovations can do so much more than simply slow global warming. They can help humanity thrive, not just survive.
Before the crash of 2008, several enthusiasts for free markets breezily suggested that oil priced at $130-140 per barrel was a good thing: it would force people to conserve energy (1). After the crash, others observed that people would worry less about climate change during a downturn, especially if it turned out to be deep and prolonged (2). In fact, both of these views are complacent.
When oil can only be extracted, refined and piped with difficulty, producing and transporting the world’s food becomes expensive. When energy in general is expensive, steel and cement cost more to make, inflating the price of buildings, roads, rail systems and even wind turbines. To put it simply, every sector and every nation has an interest in more cheap energy.
On the other hand, concerns about climate change will outlive the current period of financial turmoil. These concerns are deep-seated not just in large swathes of the population of the West, or with Barack Obama, but also among elites in China, India and the East. The crash of 2008 will make the world focus more on the East’s leadership – not least, around the issue of global warming. We are certain that climate change will regain its prominence in national and international politics.
People are constantly being told that they live in a consumer society. Yet for most adults under 65, the main event in life remains work – the realm of wealth generation, production and the different kinds of waste products that go with that.
It’s the same with energy.
Too often, governments and environmentalists address us as ignorant consumers, telling us to curb our driving and flying, eat local food, switch things off and insulate our homes. But in fact, the human input into climate change is best dealt with not in people’s personal lives, but at source – in the world’s energy supply sector. And even if climate change disappeared tomorrow, energy supply would still deserve much more investment over the next 30 years than it has had over the past 30.
Without a large new round of investment in advanced energy technologies, human beings face worse than high fuel prices and general inflation. First, there will be power cuts. There’s no need to be alarmist about these, nor attribute them to an alleged ‘peak’ in oil supplies. But in 2008 alone, power cuts occurred in places as varied as South Africa, Pakistan, China and the UK.
Worse, society simply won’t develop. Even the conservative World Bank estimates that, without a change in energy policy, 60 per cent of sub-Saharan Africans will lack access to electricity in 2030 (3).
It’s time to get a grip on these facts and stop feeling guilty about climate change. Thoughtful ingenuity, not changes in consumer awareness or behaviour, is the way to exit today’s energy crisis – and the way to deal with a warming planet.
For convenience, through good choice of technique
The industrialisation of the West brought with it man-made emissions. But it also brought new products, and, even more, innovations in the process of production. Industrialisation gave us the whole idea of convenience – of not having to scrape around to build a fire, but instead having hot running water, and eventually central heating. Finally, too, industrialisation brought with it a special form of convenience: mobility.
Convenience is still something worth fighting for – especially convenience in the use of energy. People should not have to spend their time watching ‘smart meters’ that tell them how much CO2 they are generating every time they make a cup of coffee. Instead, they should be looking forward to a world where energy is:
- cheap, always on, and to hand
- available to everyone, wherever they are
- delivered so unobtrusively that nobody worries about it.
As far as possible, the means of delivering energy should be invisible, or simply part of the furniture.
In developed countries, few worry about the humble sockets that deliver electricity to their appliances. The householder does not pause to maintain, repair, or clean an electricity socket, in the same way that the family with roof-mounted solar panels must spend time up a ladder fiddling with them (4).
People should know how energy works, but they shouldn’t have to think energy all the time. Life is too much fun for that.
The idea that people should now start to sacrifice convenience in the cause of energy conservation is also particularly insulting to women. Even today, the women of the world do most of its cooking, washing and food shopping. In truth, they need all the convenient gadgets and all the energy they can get (5).
Prigs move in
When politicians and celebrities insist that people adopt their kind of etiquette of energy use, they bolster the state’s growing interference with people’s personal lives. In practice, their liberal-sounding demand that people make ‘informed choices’ about energy is an authoritarian affront. Why should people listen to what these dignitaries say about how we should behave? What do they know about the potential for new energy technologies to bring convenience, mobility and fun to billions of people?
Politicians and celebrities are not the only problem. Educationalists in particular seek to come between parents and children. As the urban critic Austin Williams has shown, since the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, many educationalists have tailored school curricula to environmentalist ends (6). Worryingly, pupils are sometimes expected to upbraid their parents for failing to live ecologically correct lives.
Yet mankind does not yet face a greenhouse apocalypse, from which the only way out is to cut back on energy use immediately – to tax it harder, make travel by car or air unacceptable, or introduce personal carbon allowances. In any case, most people will not give up their energy-using habits that easily.
Instead of consumer cutbacks as a one-size-fits-all alternative to global warming, human beings in fact face a still open-ended choice of technique in energy supply. Here, in contrast with energy use, it makes sense to think hard.
Don’t fear the East – celebrate it
On 11 May 2007, the US House of Representatives authorised the compilation of a National Intelligence Estimate on climate change. Diplomatic tensions on climate preceded that date; but, compounded by the subsequent US sub-prime crisis and the credit crunch, 2007 was the year when those tensions broke into the open.
Today it’s clear that many of the West’s general fears centre on the East. The crash of 2008 made Wall Street vulnerable to Eastern financial institutions; and there is always the chance that these may move more decisively into the West’s energy sector. When it thinks energy, the West thinks East. When the West looks East, it sees energy and climate problems (7).
The growing part of the world’s oil that today comes from the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), has re-focused attention on the Middle East, and on security of supply in energy. There is also concern about Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. Last, the West has made much of the fact that China overtook the US in 2007 as the world’s largest emitter of C02 (8).
It’s true that NASA scientist James Hansen has blamed Britain for doing the most to boost the world’s accumulated stock of man-made C02 emissions. For Hansen, Britain’s pioneering Industrial Revolution has made it emit even more CO2 since 1751 than the US (9). Yet what most worries Western planners is Eastern demand for energy.
In choice of technique in energy supply, elites in North America and Europe fret about China and India’s fondness for coal-fired power generation. But the dread that billions of Asians will one day drive cars and travel by plane looms still larger.
Like most fears in society, this one must be resisted.
First, the East wants, and deserves, all that we have in the West. Second, the East simply won’t allow the West to dictate to it. Third, and above all, to see the populous East just as billions of consumers is a mistake.
If the world can think through energy supply, it can be entirely sanguine about Asian energy use. Indeed, Asia promises to be an important source of energy innovation and investment. It’s well known that China easily leads the world in solar water-heating panels: it has 52million square metres of them and wants four times that by 2015 (10). But what isn’t so well known, for example, is that China’s work in ‘fourth generation’ (4G) nuclear technology has already drawn significant interest in the US, and might one day figure in a revitalised nuclear programme for that country (11).
It would be idle to imagine that, on climate change, the West’s diplomacy toward the East will be motivated merely by environmental concerns. Even before the July 2008 collapse of the Doha talks on trade, Bill Emmott, former editor of The Economist, gave a vivid sketch of how West-East economic antagonisms are likely to intertwine with diplomacy on GHG emissions (12). Already, too, the West entertains imposing ‘carbon border taxes’ on Eastern exporters it conveniently deems a danger to the planet (13).
The general prospect is for Western leaders to use climate change to try to control the pace and direction of growth in the East. But from the point of view of humanity, that would be a great shame. The thought and the engineers that the East has to offer the world are precious. They should not be jeopardised by Western highhandedness on climate change.
Given good science and technology, scarcity isn’t an absolute
At the December 2007 Bali conference on climate change, where there were profound disputes between West and East, it was agreed that the rate of transfer from West to East of technological innovations in energy supply should speed up.
Yet to be thoughtful about energy supply means thinking hard not just about advances in energy, but also about the general business of technological innovation. And, as a concept, technological innovation is far too exciting to be reduced, in the manner of the Bali conference, to technology transfer.
Technological innovations aren’t just moved around from one nation, sector of industry, or organisation to another. They are also produced in the first place. They therefore rely on fresh thinking, and upon a whole series of prototypes, experiments and refinements. New technologies, therefore, rely on new scientific insights, together with a willingness to take practical risks, both in the laboratory and elsewhere.
Exactly the same is true of new energy technologies. Environmentalists and the media focus on the personal use of energy. But this book upholds science, technological innovation, research and development (R&D), and indeed, what is today derided as the ‘technical fix.’
Environmentalists love to say how the science of climatology has reached a consensus that will tolerate no ‘denial.’ And to point to the limits of the world’s resources, the environmental group WWF likewise insists that if the world’s population shared the UK population’s lifestyle, three planets would be needed to support their needs and their waste (14). Swept away by their desire to go carbon accounting and thus moralise about consumer excess, too many environmentalists ignore new scientific insights beyond those of climatology, and ignore, too, how thoughtful supply-side technologies can overcome the alleged scarcity of the Earth’s energy resources.
Scarcity isn’t an absolute. Both the International Energy Agency (IEA), a Paris-based club of the world’s big energy-using nations, and BP make generous estimates of the world’s likely reserves of oil and non-conventional oil (heavy, or from tar sands, shale and the Arctic) (15). But leave aside oil reserves. Solar power can be used both to make hydrogen from water, and to strip carbon out of atmospheric CO2. It’s also true that two types of planned nuclear reactors will be able to generate hydrogen. In principle, then, zero-carbon renewable and nuclear energy can be used to separate out hydrogen and carbon from water and air, and then combine them so as to make many Earths’ worth of new, compact and powerful hydrocarbon fuels. By perhaps 2050, those artificial carbon-based fuels will start to power more and more transport vehicles. When consumed, they’ll emit CO2; but over the whole process of getting hold of carbon from the atmosphere, combining it with hydrogen, and burning the result to go places, no new CO2 will be created. Artificial fuels will join biofuels in gradually making transport a limitless, carbon-neutral affair.
Since 1972, when the English economist Barbara Ward and the French-American microbiologist René Dubos published Only One Earth, environmentalism has monotonously repeated how finite the planet’s riches are, compared with mankind’s infinite capacity for causing havoc (16). Yet it’s really the imagination of too many environmentalists that is finite. Just two current research projects in energy hint at boundless possibilities:
1. At the Paul Scherrer Institut, Villigen, Switzerland, 170 scientists have learnt how to generate a lot of high-energy neutrons. In principle, such particles can turn long-life nuclear waste into short-life or even stable elements (17)
2. At Sandia National Laboratories, New Mexico, solar collectors irradiate giant rings that rotate once per minute and contain a metal oxide. Cooled from 1500C to 1000C, then exposed to superheated steam, the scorched rust generates free hydrogen. In the same labs, solar power is used to split CO2 into oxygen and carbon monoxide. The hydrogen and carbon monoxide can then be used to synthesise hydrocarbons (18).
For most environmentalists, the world has already reached a tipping point, so no faith can be placed in exploring these two projects. After all, in 2005 some scientists said that even the current stock of accumulated greenhouse gases would, in the long term, heat the planet by two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Any more greenhouse gas would make for big shifts in climate variability (19).
In this urgent Green framework, then, even a ‘nearly ready’ kind of energy technology like carbon capture and storage (CCS) will take too long to make a difference. To build a new round of nuclear power stations would similarly take too long.
A second Flood is not just round the corner. In any case, the problem that Greens have with energy innovation isn’t that it’s too slow. After all, Green objections are designed precisely to slow up the building of new nuclear power stations. Rather, the problem Greens have with energy innovation is that it’s too risky.
Campaign for energy supply and energy R&D
Energy innovation has been weak these past 30 years. Holding fast to the Precautionary Principle, the West has developed a deep cultural aversion to risk, technological innovation, and energy innovations in particular.
Jonathan Leake, the respected science correspondent of the The Sunday Times (London), highlights the skittishness of Western culture when he notes that several different answers to climate change have had their 15 minutes of fame (20). As solutions, planting trees and carbon trading aren’t especially technological; but just like nuclear power, wind farms, biofuels and CCS, each has had its Andy Warhol moment.
Yet there is a solid reason behind this flirting with choice of technique. The West lacks the confidence to make serious investments – either in general technology, or in energy innovations.
Between 1988 and 2006 in the US, gross expenditure on research and development (R&D) as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) stagnated at below 2.7 per cent. The commitment to R&D made by members of the European Union (EU) was even worse, and now lies at a trifling 1.8 per cent of GDP (21).
Across the 30 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), both public and private sector expenditure on energy R&D has declined. Indeed, between 1991 and 2002, R&D expenditure as a fraction of the energy sector’s total turnover dropped by more than a half – to just 0.33 per cent (22).
So much for the much-vaunted ‘knowledge economy.’ As these statistics show, there has been a stark dumbing down of energy research. With that in mind, Energise! believes that everyone should:
- refuse to be stigmatised as energy wastrels
- campaign for more of society’s money and brains to go into energy supply and energy R&D in both the private and public sectors.
Renewable sources of energy, it is said, can both save money and make money. Yet if they’re so inherently profitable, why have they been avoided for so long? Not, as Greens repeatedly allege, because the usual neo-conservative clique of business chiefs and their pawns in government has made a conspiracy to kill Green innovation – all in a Wall Street-style quest for short-term profit.
No. In fact, renewable sources of energy have taken decades to develop because they only become economically viable quickly if built on a grand scale – a scale which today’s culture in the West often finds too daunting. We explore this further in Chapter 6 of Energise!.
But there’s something else, too. The slowness to introduce Green energy innovations reflects Western fear of, and sloth around, technological innovation in general.
All parts of the energy sector need to free themselves from this sad culture of the past.
Citizens, not consumers
There’s a big contrast between
- contemporary culture, which ridicules humans’ ambitions as hubristic, warns that nature will take ‘her’ revenge, and insists that the limits imposed by nature on man can never be breached
- the logic of this book, which highlights how, depending on the state of civilisation, humans have a remarkable record of overcoming what are perceived as immutable limits.
For politicians, climate change means that nothing is certain but death, energy meters, and carbon taxes. Politicians want people to atone for their shocking selfishness: they want to add to the sum total of guilt in the world (though they don’t seem to feel very guilty themselves). They seek legitimacy through the truly limp cry: ‘Let’s survive! It’s in everyone’s interest!’
Meanwhile celebrities set themselves up as role models, favouring the chic politics of the prominent gesture. Priggish and narcissistic about their energy selflessness, they feel no guiltier than politicians.
As for the energy industry, it is on the back foot. Nuclear interests refuse to make a bold case for their role in creating much more energy, instead pleading that their plants have only a modest pollution impact. Against this defensive argument, Jimmy Carter’s demand that we put on another sweater will always win.
Oil, gas and coal are cast as pariahs. And renewable sources of energy are dogged by delays and inconclusive debates.
Finally, people are disempowered by the doctrine that they are greedy consumers of energy.
We refuse to look at people that way. People are not just consumers; they can and should be energetic citizens with lives that are convenient enough to be expansive, not spent watching energy meters. They can and should be able to vigorously debate, vote on and act upon choice of technique in energy supply.
The desire to do something about energy is fair enough. To make a better world, however, people can do more than go through the motions with energy at home, in the shops or on their travels. It’s right to:
- feel that voting for a politician every few years doesn’t help society much
- feel that following every twist and turn of celebrity gossip doesn’t do much for society either
- want personal transport that’s convenient, cheap and clean.
But human-powered bicycles won’t solve the world’s transport problems. People can do more for energy in Africa or Bangladesh than switch to the most ethical supplier of household gas.
To give something back to society and make much more than just a difference, we need to mobilise for the proper kind of energy commitments – and mobilise on the basis of nobler and more profound insights than consumer disgust with energy companies.
Solar panels on a roof, like a Toyota Prius in the driveway, can look ‘cool’ to neighbours and to visitors; but to uphold the microgeneration of energy by a panel, or energy efficiency in a car, is thinking too small. In practice, humans will have larger ambitions. Certainly they will want to do more than just survive.
Is it irresponsible to let people be thoughtless in energy use? No. To neglect the energy innovations that the world requires – now that would be irresponsible.
Energise!, by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky is published by Beautiful Books Limited. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
(1) See for example $130 a barrel and rising: it’s a Seventies-style shock but this time we won’t be held to ransom, Independent on Sunday, 25 May 2008
(2) See p3, Turmoil In Financial Markets Overspills To Energy, Energy Insider, October 2008
(3) Jamal Saghir, World Bank Director of Energy, Transport and Water, quoted in
Inside Africa: Africa’s Energy Crisis, CNN.com, aired on 12 May 2007
(4) On cleaning and maintenance of solar panels, see for example Queensland Government Environmental Protection Agency, Solar Power Systems: how they work and ways to keep them working
(5) A world of hemp lingerie? No thanks, The Times, 21 April 2008
(6) See chapter 4, ‘The indoctrinators’, in The Enemies of Progress: the Dangers of Sustainability, Austin Williams, Societas, 2008; see also Ditch lessons, schools are told, Geraldine Hackett, The Sunday Times, 24 June 2007
(7) The only extra detail to remember here is that Brazil, with its strong biofuels sector, also makes the West nervous. In energy matters, the West views Brazil almost as part of the East.
(8) China Increases Lead as Biggest Carbon Dioxide Emitter, New York Times, 14 June 2008
(9) Brown urged to resist coal rush, BBC News, 14 December 2007
(10) p197, Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilisation in Trouble, Lester B Brown, Norton, 2006
(11) p18, Innovation in China’s Energy Sector, Stanford University Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, Valerie J Karplus, Working Paper no61, March 2007
(12) pp180-181, Rivals: How the Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade, Bill Emmott, Allen Lane, 2008; for another assessment, see pp214-219, The Dragon and the Elephant: China, India and the New World Order, David Smith Profile Books, 2007
(13) Green barricade, Financial Times, 24 January 2008. The compulsory purchase of permits to emit is also a tactic that the West may use to frustrate Eastern exporters.
(14) WWF biannual Living Planet Report, cited in Global ecosystems ‘face collapse’, BBC News, 24 October 2006
(16) Only One Earth: The Care And Maintenance Of A Small Planet, Barbara Ward and René Dubos, WW Norton, 1972
(17) Paul Scherrer Institut, Neutrons for research and nuclear waste disposal, 31 January 2007; and The Megapie Experiment – Facts & Figures, 31 January 2007
(18) Synthetic Fuel From a Solar Collector, IEEE Spectrum, 7 January 2008
(19) See pp5, 6 and 10Avoiding dangerous climate change, international symposium on the stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations, Hadley Centre, Meteorological Office, Exeter, UK, 1-3 February 2005, Report of the International Scientific Steering Committee, May 2005
(20) A lungful of carbon delusion, The Sunday Times, 16 December 2007
(21) p3 Main Science and Technology Indicators (MSTI): 2007/2 edition, OECD, 19 November 2007
(22) pp31, 32, 36, 37, Do we have the right R&D priorities and programmes to support the energy technologies of the future?, Richard Doornbosch and Simon Upton, OECD, Round Table on Sustainable Development, SG/SD/RT(2006)1, 30 June 2006
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