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Sustainable Energy for All: this year, next year, sometime – or never?

By Lara J Carim, on 27 November 2012

West Yorkshire wind turbines (by
nulabugeye on Flickr)

Liberal Democrat Energy Minister Ed Davey’s clash with his Conservative deputy John Hayes over the future of wind turbines earlier this month demonstrates how topical and divisive the sustainable energy agenda can be.

Despite the issue’s current high media profile, a quick show of hands at the start of Professor Paul Ekins’ Lunch Hour Lecture on 20 November illustrated that there is little public awareness of 2012 as UN International Year of Sustainable Energy for All – even among an audience with an interest in the topic.

Undeterred, Ekins, who is Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy and Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, immediately set out in stark terms why sustainable energy is “a huge issue”: 1.3 billion people globally in 2012 have no access to electricity, and 2.7 billion – more than one-third of the world’s population – lack clean cooking facilities.

Such bald statistics instantly illustrated the implications of the energy agenda beyond the Western world’s backyard – and Ekins was clear as to the role of richer regions: “It is mainly a challenge for countries like ours – we can’t complain about those without access to electricity wanting it. It is up to countries like ours to develop means of sustainable energy access.”

A line on a graph charting a painfully shallow climb represented the scale of the challenge: if we continue with our current levels of flirtation with sustainable energy solutions, by 2030, only 30% of the world’s energy will be powered by renewable sources, “with all the death and destruction that will cause”, warned Professor Ekins.

His tone swiftly moved to optimism, however, as he described the “two enormous hopes” – energy efficiency or conservation and renewable energy, which involve a plunge in the use of coal twinned with ongoing development of carbon dioxide storage options to accommodate the emissions from dwindling fossil fuel use.

Unsurprisingly, different challenges beset developing and developed countries. For the former, the main drive is somersaulting existing ‘conventional’ energy solutions in place in the Western world, in favour of embedding ‘off-grid’ solutions that are cleaner, more cost-effective and more competitive, such as a decentralised solar grid and the mobile phone network.

In comparison, the OECD countries have to make the transition from an entrenched grid-based system to a low-energy one – no mean feat given the commitment to cut 80% of greenhouse gases by 2050, which Ekins reminded us is a commitment enshrined in law.

In short, “Nearly every aspect of the energy system will need to change to meet these objectives”. On the supply side, possible developments include the decarbonisation of electricity, increased use of large- and small-scale renewables, (greater) exploitation of nuclear power, and improved and expanded carbon capture and storage.

To reduce demand, more intelligent building and transport design will be in order, as well as changes in consumer lifestyle and behaviour.

The response to demand on the technical side will also need to be more interactive, with the grid drawing on information and communication technology and smart meters to smooth the power load and distribution throughout the day. The wholesale power market will have to undergo a restructure, while on the home front, new fuel-cell technologies will need to oust the ill-loved individual gas boiler.

Professor Ekins did not skirt the complexities of the international dimension. In particular, he discussed how countries tend to keep market-ready technological solutions close to their chests; access to such solutions should be subsidised for developing countries; and countries taking strong actions on the energy agenda might need to impose stronger border taxes on those that are not.

Equally, cross-border grid integration – enabling Norwegian wind power to be combined with Spanish solar power, for example – requires development of new international standards, as well as bodies to govern them.

Even when countries have started to take action, there are conflicting approaches to the same aims – Germany, for instance, has turned its back on nuclear power, just as the UK seems poised to enter a new period of investment in nuclear.

And, of course, none of this comes cheap. Current estimates for achieving sustainable energy for all are around $2.5 trillion by 2050. “Private investors will need to be suitably incentivised, and governments will need to borrow more wisely than in the past,” Ekins wryly observed.

Ensuring that the huge investments required are not stranded by unforeseen developments will therefore be a key consideration. Despite the huge figures, most experts agree that sustainable energy paradigm would not affect the economy “that much”, given that – from an optimist’s point of view (and Ekins places himself firmly in this camp) – one person’s costs are another’s profit.

The optimists also believe that once the steep learning curve is behind us, costs will fall dramatically, with climate change policies spurring innovation, exports and growth – in comparison with the volatility of fossil fuel prices over the past 10 years.

Pessimists – whom Professor Ekins noted were largely inhabiting the Treasury at the moment – counter-claim that alternative energy is very expensive and a brake on growth.

Professor Ekins did not pull his punches. “Unsustainable growth will not last beyond this century unless we get our act together – but there is no low-cost, high-carbon future.”

All countries will need to be involved, and those enjoying sustainable high-growth levels will have developed and will export resource-efficient technologies and industries. Ekins’s frequent trips to Asia support his view that this region ‘gets the situation most’ globally, while Germany is at the vanguard in Europe.

Ultimately, Professor Ekins concluded, achieving sustainable energy for all will be a politically-charged process – requiring nerve and foresight – and the current division in the coalition government is likely just a taster of the battles to come.

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