An Energy Future

Calvin Jones says we can’t hide from the reality of an energy crisis.

In late 2009 I wrote the 100 page report ‘Wales in the Energy Crunch’. Not because I was paid, or somebody asked me to, but because I thought it important (we even made a film about it all. Quite a funny one). The report landed not with a bang but with a whimper. The waters of policy closed quickly over its dire predictions of want, policy dysfunction and hard choices badly made, disturbed only by the ripples of a few green NGOs and energy geeks as boring as I. One of the salutary experiences of my working life was repeatedly telling audiences, fully referenced and evidenced, that our way of life was at existential threat, only to see their eyes glaze over… ooh! Coffee and cakes!

This week on Click on Wales

This week on Click on Wales we’ll be asking what type of energy policy we want for Wales.
This comes ahead of today’s IWA Energy Summit 2014 which will be held in Cardiff. To follow the debate, follow the hashtag #energywales

The only surprise is that I was surprised. We have spent the last 100 years, and a lot more in ‘nice’ places, removing energy from the equation of life. It comes from somewhere else. Or deep down. Or by unthinking magic: Look, a switch! We could ignore its origin, barring the occasional war or surprise recession, and remake our lands and landscapes into fetishized 19th century picture postcards, and pay people to do… well, not very much useful with them.

That is all ending. Energy, unlike football, really is coming home. A messy, imperfect and staggered storm is raging. Putin’s bluster and Gazprom’s blasts. The Saudis, desperately pumping to keep liquid oil production levels at least constant, Insh’Allah. ISIS-ISIL raging piratanically across Iraqi oil production forecasts. The Chinese, splashing the cash across resource-rich Africa, closing deals and closing options for the West. And don’t look at the elephant. You know, the one in the corner nursing a large scotch and a far larger debt, unable to pay his way on a bus, let alone in a global energy market, without the continued, death-embrace symbiosis of his Asian creditors.

So if we can’t buy it, we’ll have to make it, or do without. And here the trouble starts. We obsess mightily over whether a hillside or in-stream hydro turbine is less ruinous to our remaining ecology, or affronting to the sensibilities, than the peripatetic march across the land of short-lived fracking wells, with all the years of 18-wheel traffic and poison lakes they bring. We seize greedily on the next spinny thing. On a submerged wall. Or sitting on the waves. Or suspended in a nuclear-superheated jet of steam. Hoping against hope they might be efficient, and affordable, and scalable.

Just give it a rest.

It’s too late. Any chance we had to move to a sustainable or nuclear future was blown apart at Chernobyl and by the wanton waste of the last of the cheap oil on worthless tat in the loadsamoney 1980s. Thatcher was right, but about the wrong thing. There Is No Alternative. If nuclear didn’t do the job in the 1950s and 1960s when it was British built, and at the heart of a strong national economy, it won’t now when we have to pay Johnny Foreigner double to build them and for the privilege of taking the money we can no longer honestly earn. Meanwhile, UK geology and population density will make fracked gas or oil available only at a price we can’t afford (but the Germans might). Our friends in Qatar will keep sending that gas for exactly as long as it suits them and not a shipment more, and by the time we really need it the Yanks will have blown theirs fighting climate change, Canute like, in their South Western deserts with serried ranks of room-size aircon units. If renewables ever had a chance, it’s disappearing with the cowardice of politicians in the face of little-Britisher sniffy resistance, and pressure from big energy horrified at the thought of missing the gravy train again, like they did with the German Energiewende.

So we don’t have the budget, carbon or cash, to build out renewables as quickly as we need, let alone the guts or will. And everything else is just methadone for the oil addicts. But worse, because at least with methadone it’s usually free and there’s a lady with a soothing voice, and plan to get you clean at the end of it all. All we have is the prospect of a protracted set of guerrilla battles against the ending of the energy source that fundamentally enables industrialised society. A war fought with traitorous generals, and a soldiery that don’t even know there’s a bloody war on. The debt we built up burning a million years of sunshine will come due, and it will be reckoned and paid, again, on the backs of the poor. We will go on lauding innovation; and enterprise; and the market; and the importance of sunny optimism; as we burn the last and dirtiest of the black stuff, boiling the planet as the waters of history close slowly over our heads.

And then maybe history herself will fold away the scroll, sighing as she does so, and put it up on a shelf next to the trilobites, the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals. And yes, the last of those might indeed have made a better job of all this, if we hadn’t fucked them up.

Am I happy about all this? No. My daughter is two years old.

Do I know what to do about it?


Do you?

If not, start thinking.

Calvin Jones is Professor of Economics at Cardiff Business School.

5 thoughts on “An Energy Future

  1. Nice spleen venting.

    We have no real drive to using less of this energy stuff. Partly because we feel we are brainwashed into more is better than less of something, we have asked the people selling the stuff and who are making profit from this enterprise to persuade us to use less!? The solutions are out there, the examples are there but the route to this Nirvana is strewn with ‘hollow’ men. “Take no decisions and get nothing wrong” approach is famous in statutory institutions. I have the naive confidence that it can be done but we need the backbone to want to do it. We (Wales) hold untold treasures in wind, tide, water and dare say sunlight and yet we think of them as Cinderella energy. This really is not rocket science. It’s not as though energy falls out of the sky… Sorry yes it does! But harnessing, storing and efficiently using is just a mater of application once the context is sorted. We all have a responsibility and can make a difference. I don’t control the ISIS Middle East strategy but I do control my light switch


    Between thought and deed is a grey area. In this grey area the hollow men dwel. Beware the hollow men!

  2. Well I can’t say this article really adds anything to the debate. Those with the power to make a change already understand the problems. What we need are solutions. And to be fair we are making procgress. Sure it is now where near as quickly as we’d like but our consumption is down, renewables up, home gen up, and the public are starting to engage more.

    What Wales needs are realisitic targets – not the nonsense the WG have put in place.

  3. What!? We could be producing fracked shale gas for countries such as Germany that we wouldn’t be able to afford for our own use? And we would have all the fracking sites to put up with, the health and safety, and environmental risks, and the near certainty of waste products being left deep down in the earth?

    This furious, ironic, report is a surprise to me, coming from a professor of economics. I am surprised by its despair. Perhaps we should be paying attention to what he is saying, and seriously thinking about what to do about energy production and management. We have to develop alternatives to oil, so we have to consider and explore other ideas, even those that seem hopelessly impractical.

    This needs scientific, and technological people in schools and universities, or even in sheds, to put their heads together and see what they can discover that might help us.

    We non specialist people also need to understand much more about energy and economics in order to make better informed decisions. It would just possibly be helpful if we had widespread local community talks on these subjects, at which experts without too much of an axe to grind could demonstrate their knowledge and answer people’s questions. Universities could promote and deliver public talks too, and open their lab doors to us.

    Conferences such as the Energy Summit to be held in Butetown, Cardiff, shortly, should be opened to people who are niether IWA members nor well-off enough to afford the £90 entrance fee. Instead, a much smaller charge could be made to community groups, with a number of tickets being issued for pennies on the door.

    This is still a slow process, but maybe a very worthwhile one. I can’t see that a swift political solution via next year’s general election will make a great difference to our energy challenges right now, although greater political determination of priorities may be desirable. Devolvement of energy control doesn’t really mean separation from the rest of Britain on a practical level since we would be likely to find ourselves mutually dependent on one another for energy security, and so a more mixed energy production plan might be needed.

    In Wales we want to be able to research alternatives to traditional energy technologies however, and this work needs supporting (and promoting). We will also need to consider how we develop and deliver viable technologies for general and particular use, and what economic, and political considerations need to be acknowledged.

  4. I can see where you’re coming from with a lot of this detail but surely it’s lost on a bunch of Guardian readers?

    The solution will probably be nuclear fusion – an idea that’s been around for decades but the technical difficulties of controlling fusion reactions have so-far defeated some of the best brains in the world. Unusually, Lockheed-Martin have just decided to throw open more details of a fusion project they are working on in the ‘basement’.

    I don’t know whether this design will work but some day, and arguably before fossil fuels run out which is longer than the red-green doomsayers would like us to believe, innovation will overcome the problem of controlling and containing fusion reactions.

    And then the destructive modern Luddites in the red-green payroll lobby should finally be toast – that’s if the next mini ice age doesn’t finish them off first…

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