The Energy Conundrum

Gareth Wyn Jones says we need to move away from our dependency on fossil fuels.

Our society’s prosperity is built on cheap reliable, controllable energy. We have every reason to thank James Watts, Richard Trevithick and the other pioneers of stream power. For some 200 years our society has been powered by cheap hydrocarbon fuels (coal, oil and gas) to push, pull and turn the engines of our lives. We haven’t needed maids or grooms or horses as we have our cars, wagons, washing machines and computers.

The estimates of our average annual energy consumption to keep, feed and entertain ourselves are staggering. Perhaps best appreciated in relation to a single-bar conventional electric fire ‘burning’ 24 kW hours of electricity in day. Using this as the unit, we on average, each and everyone of us, use about 6 to 7 electric fire units, day and night, throughout the every year!

But we know with an awful certainty that this cannot continue. The growing threat from global warming and climate change means that we must, in barely two decades, re-engineer our society away from its dependence on greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels. Already we know of far greater reserves of coal, oil and gas than we can possible burn without seriously damage to planetary life support systems. The evidence of global change grows relentlessly, month by month, crisis by crisis, death by death. From Karachi to California, from the Larsen Ice Shelves to the Laptev Sea, the prognosis is stark. Still of course some choose to bury their heads in the warming sands, although the strong likelihood is that, with a developing El Nino event, this year will trounce 2014 as the hottest year in the modern record. Worse every year we delay binds us into more and more change. The Pope has now added his voice and authority to this argument. The evidence denies the deniers.

What therefore are our re-engineering options here in Wales and world-wide?

Humanity is indeed in it together as the atmosphere is common good and the climate change impacts indiscriminate and partly unpredictable, but the solutions are probably to be found more locally.

There are no simple options. Every possible energy source has its problems as well as its virtues and, as your letters pages show, its supporters and fierce opponents. As a result Welsh and UK governments have vacillated and prevaricated.

Undoubtedly the first and best option is to use less energy, to be less profligate. Germany, Demark and other countries have clear targets, not just to divorce energy use from economic growth or less energy use per head, but to reduce total energy use. We should too. With less wanton waste, the adoption of modern technologies, better insulation, regulation and planning, most agree we can save over 35% of our total energy bill. Probably we would be fitter and happier as a result. In Wales this could reduce our internal consumption from ~100 TWh to below 65TWh.

But what then of supply?

Some advocate carbon capture and storage(CCS) within the existing fossil fuel economy, but to date this has proven fraught and uneconomic. Storing hundreds of billions of tonnes of a CO2-storage compound annually, and safely, would be an enormous, and probably impractical challenge.

Nuclear electricity is very expensive, slow to construct (remembering the re-engineering timeline is very tight), potentially dangerous e.g. think Fukushima and terrorism, produces a thousand-year problem of storing deadly radioactive waste.  Clearly it is inappropriate in much of our contested, violent world. What price a nuclear power station in hands of ISIS? However it is reliable and, to an extent, proven but would a Nuclear Power Station on the Thames estuary in say Tilbury be a goer?

Renewable sources are diverse and relatively plentiful in Wales but still contentious. Their development is not cheap, but costs are falling. Some are intermittent and unpredictable making matching supply and demand more difficult. On-shore wind and increasingly solar photo-voltaics are becoming economically competitive but have low load factors. But some see them as a blight our landscape, much the same is said of pylons carrying nuclear or other large point-source electricity to the large users.  Off-shore wind in less visually intrusive but more expensive. Small-scale hydro is resisted by the fishing lobby and some conservationists as it can impact on other environment interests, but has significant advantages’ especially in the Welsh hills. Aerobic digestion of human and other wastes is assumed to be smelly. Significant wood biomass would result in 20 to 30 years from an expansion of Wales’ woodland to ~400,00ha as is the WG formal policy. Electricity from tidal barrages and lagoons ponds, and even tidal flow, is currently expensive and the infrastructures have impacts on sediment distribution and maybe wildlife. But they have the great advantage of long-term predictability, and given the tidal flows around us, a source of continual power. Ground, air and water source heat pumps are non-contentious and effective in well-insulated spaces.

So despite the clear indications that Wales could be more than self sufficient in renewable energy, both electricity and heat, progress is painfully slow. Worst: the public debate is dominated by the shrill calls of special interests.

We define our priorities clearly.

  • We must cut our greenhouse gas emissions within about 20 years by about 80% and recognise that time is not on our side!

  • The logical place to start is with much improved energy use efficiency, which can have a short lead-time. This means insulating homes and buildings, promoting a rapid move to EVs, electrifying trains, much better special and local planning, encouraging walking, cycling and above all personal responsibility.

  • Target >35% decrease in energy demand by 2035 from current ~100TWh.
  • We must engage with all Welsh people so that they can appreciate both the global problem and the solutions, many of which lie in their hands. The greater the local involvement and energy production greater the chance of individuals and communities become energy conscious and responsible. Why not run competitions for Wales’ most energy efficient family and/or community?

  • WG must engage with the networks to make sure good renewable schemes are not undermined by connection charges.

  • We must avoid being side-tract by fracking which simply delays a coherent answer.

  • We must avoid subsidised nuclear electricity. The lead times are too long, the technology to cumbersome with too many long term risks and will result in a half century of outlay to benefit not the Welsh people but foreign capital.

  • The best answer must surely lie in saving and mix of renewable sources.

In my second article I will consider the potential and problems with each source of the renewable electricity and heat source and the vexed issue of balancing supply and demand on a second by second and seasonal basis.

Gareth Wyn Jones is Professor Emeritus of Bangor University.

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