WE HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE. Looking at the current energy crisis, I can’t help but observe what has changed and what hasn’t changed since the last time we faced large and rapid increases in energy prices.
In 1971, 3 gallons of petrol cost around £1. Ten years later, after the wars and revolution in the Middle East, a gallon of petrol cost around £2, a sixfold increase.
Other than brilliant music and Scotland nearly winning the FIFA World Cup twice, there was nothing good to say about the 1970s. A miserable decade of declining real living standards and incompetent government.
Petrol is now approaching £8 a gallon, but general prices have risen as much over the last 40 years. We currently have a major problem because of the rate at which prices have risen, but in fact we have enjoyed relatively cheap energy for many years. The key point is that we’ve been here before and we need to learn from what we did and didn’t do last time.
One of the main differences between the 1970s and today is that people expect the government to “do something” for them personally now.
This shift in expectations has been accelerated by the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Something bad is happening and people want the authorities to step in to directly soften the blow.
Up to a point, this is progress. Protecting economically vulnerable citizens from sudden economic shocks that force them to make choices between heating and other basic needs for their families is certainly a good thing. It is harder to justify extending aid to the point where people expect assistance with basic needs while traveling to the Costa del Sol for a fortnight. Aid must be targeted where it is really needed and it must be large enough to make a real difference. The package announced by the UK government last week is actually a pretty good effort.
The other stark difference between the 1970s and today is the green agenda. When I was in school that meant eating your broccoli, now that means making sure our planet can support future generations of our species.
What we thought was the smart thing to do in the 1970s – reducing dependence on OPEC by diversifying where our fossil fuels come from is no longer smart except in the very short term.
What is needed now is a massive increase in the search for economically viable alternatives to fossil fuels. In the very long term, nuclear fusion is the Holy Grail, but we also need to look at new nuclear fission technologies such as Molten Salt Thorium reactors. With the degree of urgency we have applied to the search for a vaccine against Covid-19, we could make rapid progress towards new, safer forms of nuclear energy – but rapid still means decades before they cannot contribute significantly.
We need to quickly do three things.
First, we must accept that current nuclear energy technology has a role to play. The UK government has a plan to build more nuclear power stations, but the Scottish government is dragging its feet – it needs to grow up and accept that, to keep the lights on affordably, nuclear power is part of the solution. A quick “wake up and smell the coffee” moment is needed.
Second, we need to redouble our efforts in renewables and – and this is key – address their intermittency problem. Wind and solar power are totally useless on a calm winter night.
We have to be imaginative. For example, harnessing the tidal flows that move somewhere around the UK coast every minute of every day or building a power line to Iceland to tap into their abundant geothermal energy.
We need to use the excess renewable energy generated at times when there is wind or sunshine to produce green hydrogen which can then be injected into the energy system when needed. We need to avoid the downside of blue hydrogen – made from natural gas – being touted as an environmentally friendly alternative, which it isn’t.
Third, we need to improve the energy efficiency of our homes, industries and transportation. We are doing it but we have to go further and above all faster.
We have to accept that this program will be expensive. Fossil fuels are used because they are cheap for the user with the environment and our grandchildren footing the bill. Green energy works the other way around, vital in the long term but costly in the short term in terms of bills. We must protect those who cannot afford to make the transition to sustainable, secure and stable energy – and move on.