Published on January 22nd, 2014 |
by Jack Cowell
Image © thesuccess 2012
Power to the people – letting the market choose energy technology
An important question, which is often over-looked, regards the government’s role in setting the direction of research and development in energy technology. The role played by Parliament in controlling energy prices, enforcing customer protections, collecting taxes from major industry players and instigating infrastructural reform and development is common fare on radio shows and daytime panel programs. Yet these questions are subsumed by the more general issue of government meddling in energy investment at the developmental level. With Britain facing blackouts in my lifetime, this is a very pressing question.
Solar and wind power investment continues to be trumpeted by environmental lobbyists and pressure groups and, despite advances in technology, these sources remain unrealistic options for the future; particularly solar power, seeing as the UK sees around 4 minutes of sunshine each winter. Wind power too commands notable resources, but with little reward given the immediacy of our power concerns. It has the potential to provide 406 billion kWh/year from offshore sites, tens of billions over the UK energy usage in the past few years. Yet this would require enormous tracks of land to be used for wind farms, which people are simply unwilling to put up with. The long-term benefits may be enormous but so too are the immediate costs. More and more parts for turbines have to be imported, and planning permission applications are taking toll on investors. This is all not to mention the unreliability of wind technology, based on inherently unpredictable
It is obvious that renewable sources need to be integrated into our supply as soon as possible, but it should not be to the detriment of both our energy security, and consumers. The abandonment of the worst polluting fossil fuels is entirely necessary, yet we risk throwing out potential with the mildly polluted bathwater.
Parliament’s inability to discuss things rationally due to the quick reacts of environmental groups who associate the words “coal” with “evil” is a serious problem. Coal will, one way or another, play a huge role in this country’s energy provision in the future. Coal is a fuel this country has in abundance, enough for over 100 years at careful estimates. At present coal still provides energy for thousands of homes in the UK. Yet it’s use is constrained due to legislation binding the UK to meet certain emissions quota. This is of course a necessary constraint and a welcome one. What is not welcome is the rejection of coal in any circumstance. Technology exists, and is utilised by other European countries, which captures the vast majority of the harmful emissions which are produced when coal combusts. If this country had invested early enough and sufficiently in CCS (carbon capture and storage) technology, then today the decisions being faced by Parliament would be a great deal easier. We would not be facing blackouts in our lifetime. Nor would we be so dependent on imported coal. The new demand would simulate a rejuvinated coal industry, bringing with it jobs, energy security, confidence and money. The debate about fracking may too appear very different, but I will not go into this here.
Campaigners last year reportedly forced divestment of up to £5bn away from carbon technologies research in British Universities with Universities switching the funding to renewable technologies. Seemingly a success, this is a clear example of how the government is failing in its very action. In adopting an anti-hydrocarbon rhetoric rather than a specifically anti-emission rhetoric, the energy security of this country is put in jeopardy. It should play its correct role in a market economy by making sure that divestment drives can happen freely, but also that they are informed, proportional and that they do not coerce. Surely such a worthwhile pursuit as emission-neutral hydro-carbons (once these emissions are captured that is) would receive ample investment in a functioning market. This is of course not a functioning investment market; it is an emotionally driven one with serious pressure to drop investment for “evil” carbon fuels. This is not an advocation of a pure carbon energy economy; it is simply an appraisal of the situation at hand. The best way to achieve the utopian goals of the environmentalist lobby is to have a prosperous present, while still doing everything we can to alleviate the strain on the planet.
The reason why the government is meddling in such matters is that, at it’s core, a Parliament is a short-sighted being; more so than the constituents it represents, which is very short-sighted indeed. Academia too can be shortsighted, but much less so. Both are easily swayed by the emotional surge of the time. The market is largely atemporal; it’s degree of foresight depends on the fruition of investment. The larger market for ideas is not affected by the effections of the mob. As such, good ideas are not allowed to go unnoticed, nor are near term gains set aside due to the fickleness of the mob. It is in this manner then that we must choose our salvation. Without abandoning long term goals of using only renewable and eco-friendly energy sources, one should not allow hoarde emotions to put the near future in danger for the sake of the distant. The two can easily be reconciled.
Food for Thought
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