An Energy Future

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

Calvin Jones is Professor of Economics at Cardiff Business School.

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?

No.

Do you?

If not, start thinking.

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