We should aspire to abundant and cheap energy for all
The Coalition government has concluded its energy conference, which brought together power firms, consumer groups, and the energy regulator, with a call for consumers to be less lazy about switching suppliers and for energy supply companies to be more proactive in offering customers the best deal. The crucial question of how we produce energy in the first place has been conspicuously ignored.
I worked for a small commercial gas supplier back in the mid-1990s, when the last Tory government was opening up the domestic gas and electricity markets to competition. I remember attending a meeting with an electricity generating company that expressed scepticism about the benefits of chasing after domestic energy consumers compared to the more attractive business proposition of investing in power generation projects globally. Today, whatever the benefits of switching supplier, insulating your home, putting on a jumper or signing up to direct debit energy deals, it is the more important question of energy production that really needs to be addressed.
Since the mid 1990s the issues that surround the question of energy production have changed greatly. On the positive side, the economic growth in areas of the world such as India and China means that the world demand for energy has grown substantially. On the negative side, anxieties about how to meet this demand have grown even more. What should be both an exciting business opportunity and an opportunity to improve substantially the lives of billions of people, has become an unseemly, and at times dishonest, political row.
So what is it that has got us so hot under the collar about energy? From fracking to Fukushima, to oil spills and the threat of global warming, an alarming aspect of the energy debate is the way it has become conducted through the prism of fear. The most striking recent example of this was the spectacle of the German government, having only last year marshalled the dangers of climate change to advance the importance of nuclear power, soaking up anxieties about the threat posed by tsunamis and earthquakes to conduct a sudden about-turn in policy about the wisdom of locating nuclear plants on its shores. No matter that no-one has yet died as a consequence of the nuclear disaster in Japan, it is the political fall-out of Fukushima that has dominated the world’s headlines more than the thousands killed by the natural disaster and the plight of those rebuilding their lives.
Whether it is Indian businesses experiencing planned outages to ration supply, the billion-plus villagers in the world not yet connected to an electricity grid, or British consumers facing massively increasing energy prices, the question of how to ramp up energy production and distribution efficiently is an important global debate. But when our imaginations are so easily gripped by worst-case-scenarios, more existential threats seem to come to the fore and undermine our ability to make sober assessments of the options available to us.
An important barometer of our ability to engage in more measured debate will undoubtedly be provided by growing international interest in shale gas and the associated process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it has become known. For some, the prospect of abundant sources of gas becoming accessible at relatively cheap prices is being lauded as a welcome ‘game-changer’ in the energy debate; whilst for others this is ‘oh so much hype’ and an evasion of the more important task of moving away from fossil fuels. The battle lines are being drawn with the trading of cherry-picked data and excerpts from favoured reports likely to follow.
However, it might be more interesting and fruitful if protagonists in the debate are able to step back from the fray and reflect on what they ultimately hope to achieve and how the debate about energy is important to that goal. With greater clarity about the underlying parameters of the debate, we might do a better job of understanding the choices before us and making more discerning judgements about hyped hopes and fears. I for one have an unashamed desire to benefit from abundant and cheap energy sources so that I really don’t have to worry about whom my energy supplier is or what tariff I’m on; and I have an unequally unashamed hope that everyone else in the world could equally enjoy the same. With that on the table, my question for the speakers at the Battle of Ideas energy debate is ‘what’s wrong with that?’
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Tony Gilland is Science and Society Director at the Institute of Ideas and director of the IoI’s Debating Matters Competition for sixth-form students. He is speaking at the Fukushima Fallout Battle Satellite event on Monday 24 October, organised in association with the Manchester Salon, Manchester Science Festival and The John Rylands University Library, University of Manchester.Tagged in: Energy, Fukushima, global warming, oil spill, opinion
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