Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Can we avoid a "lights out" scenario?

I went to a fascinating Cambridge Energy Forum meeting last week – around 100 people in the Cambridge Union debating chambers. Great mix of entrepreneurs, academics and energy businesspeople present, and the debate was chaired by Prof Ian Fells. The purpose of the evening was to kick-off of a 6-month project to thrash out an energy policy to present to the government. This will be tracked online with a wiki.

There were 3 short talks followed by debate:

1) Prof Fells has just co-authored a paper called “A Pragmatic Energy Policy for the UK”, with Candida Whitmill, who used to work for the DTI on energy. The thrust of the paper is that the lights will go out in the UK in 2014 (specifically, electricity supply will no-longer be able to meet demand), such is the huge hole we have got into due to the lack of new power station build over the past 10 years. It’s too late now even to build new power stations. Therefore forget climate change, energy security is a much more pressing problem.

2) The Financial Times' environmental correspondent Fiona Harvey then countered, saying that some of the assumptions were pessimistic, and that it is still possible to address energy security and climate change together.

3) Then Prof David Mackay, a well-known Cambridge mathematician (and founder of startups including MetaFAQ), presented his plan for getting the UK to carbon neutrality by 2050, avoiding an energy crisis along the way. This was really fun, gazillions of numbers, and he’s written a book which is free online called “Sustainable Energy, without the Hot Air. From memory:

a. Total energy requirements of the UK now 250GW

b. Convert all transport to electric

c. Knock down majority of old houses, since they are impossible to make energy efficient

d. Convert all home heating to airsource heatpumps (driven by electricity)

e. Build lots of nuclear, and lots of diverse electricity generation sources, from tidal and wind, and massive PV plants covering most of Libya and Algeria, delivering electricity into Europe (you lose 10% per 1000km in high voltage distribution).

f. Avoid all microgeneration. Wind turbines are ineffectual, CHP is much less carbon-efficient than heat-pumps, and even if we covered every rooftop in the UK, PV could only supply 5% (?) of our needs

g. To sustain a home’s energy need using wood burning, each home would need an area 20 times the size of the home’s footprint.

h. Prof MacKay lives in a Victorian home, and he has already reduced his energy consumption by more than 50%, by becoming very aware of where energy is going.

i. 4m people in UK are in fuel poverty today, defined as spending more than 10% of household income on energy. Will be 6m by 2010.

Everything I heard reinforces the view that we need to tackle the energy crisis in many ways simultaneously, and in particular that better management of domestic energy consumption can make a real difference, quickly.