The key to an invisible future

Ian Beales

Cheap energy comes at a price. The Aztecs calculated that it needed the ritual sacrifice of 20,000 humans a year to persuade the Sun God, bringer of heat and light, to travel across the sky. Blind faith dictated they pay the going rate. Cost-benefit analysis may have moved on since then, but not by too much: as recently as 2006, China was reporting 4,746 annual mining fatalities. So energy security – identifying and protecting sustainable resources – persists as power politics incarnate: crude, combustible and insoluble. Nations fight over it. Men die for it. 

Western contractors still do not feel safe to return to the Algerian oil installation where 23 workers were killed in a jihadist attack in January. In north-eastern Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer – already plagued by pipeline pirates siphoning off hundreds of thousands of gallons a day – is on constant alert against threats to its oil fields from Boko Haram terrorists, who recently killed dozens of sleeping agricultural students. Meanwhile, the energy debate is riven by contradictions. Even as Japan’s nuclear power stations stay deadly silent after the Fukushima disaster, Mitsubishi wins a contract to build a Turkish nuclear plant. While Germany decides, post-Fukushima, to abandon nuclear power, China, France, Britain, Finland, the Czech Republic and even Abu Dhabi – home to the world’s fourth largest oil company – pledge to invest in it. So too does the USA, despite having transformed its own economy with cheap gas via hydraulic fracture – fracking – of oil shale. 

In the Arctic, Greenpeace activists who boarded a remote Russian oil rig are held in jail on piracy charges. In a picturesque English village, police drag away protesters opposed to fracking, a process that divides the world, both on yield and environmental safety. The UK backs it with tax breaks; but in France and the Netherlands it is the frackers who are banned. Germany looks both ways at once: hoping fracking might help fill a post-nuclear gap, but fearing it will pollute the water, threatening the purity of the nation’s fabled beer. 

Sense and sustainability can easily be lost in all this. Can cross-border policing keep strategic installations safe? Will neighbouring governments co-operate? Is the world forever to be in thrall to politically fickle energy suppliers with long, exposed pipelines? Are renewable sources such as solar, wind and tidal installations inherently less exposed to attack or environmental risk than oil or nuclear? After Fukushima, is nuclear a viable long-term option? Can the world dispose of the waste? By legend, late Victorian Britain faced similar issues when a contemporary projection of London’s vehicular traffic trends suggested that by the early 20th century the capital’s streets would be several feet deep in horse manure. Happily, science intervened. Petrol engines replaced the horse. 

Science continues to move on. New or improved energy sources are coming onstream: solar, biomass, wind, tidal, hydro. Smaller, modular nuclear reactor plants now being developed are cheaper and less centralised, providing location-specific power to targeted consumers. 

But the most beguiling prospect comes from invisible energy: that which we don’t use. Transformative energy-saving techniques could mean that, despite global population growth, per capita energy use actually falls. Smart buildings, well insulated and smart metered, can slash consumption by 70 per cent. Smart vehicles cut transport costs by 50 per cent or more. German researchers predict Europe’s energy use in 2050 could be 57 per cent less than in 1990. Such savings might be offset in developing countries, but one forecast suggests that, even while global GDP will grow by 135 per cent by 2040, the world will need only 35 per cent more energy than now. 

So, smart technology could reduce demand, help curb prices, secure sustainability – and blow apart the energy inflation paradigm. But, despite this exciting vision, invisibility is a hard sell to consumers. To impact fully on society, smart technology must be matched by smarter incentives: ‘golden carrot’ payments for developers and tax rewards for investors. Tomorrow’s invisible future is in urgent need of a tangible present. Upfront inducements, not user sacrifices, hold the key to success. 

Sadly, the Aztecs got it the wrong way around.


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Amnesty International