Energy problems demand a coherent solution, not a quick fix.
The energy issues facing many of the world's governments are now acute. And there is a disturbing tendency for this urgency to generate polarizing debates on plans that could have only a marginal effect on the unfolding crisis. In the United States, such an argument has taken place over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In Britain, an almighty row is looming over the replacement of a small number of ageing nuclear power stations.
The urgency of the current crisis is driven by stubbornly high oil prices, the clear need to do something about greenhouse-gas emissions, and the benign neglect that has characterized many national energy policies for the past two decades. But the crisis demands more than the flailing efforts of governments or political parties to develop headline-grabbing initiatives. It calls, instead, for a thorough, rational and rapid analysis of how effective energy policies should be rebuilt.
A report released this week by the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) attempts to provide such an analysis for Scotland — a small country whose energy issues are not untypical of those facing Western Europe.
The exhaustion of North Sea oil and gas, together with the rapid ageing of coal and nuclear power stations, presents a challenge for the Scottish Executive and the British government in London. Under Scotland's 1999 devolutionary settlement, London sets the energy policy, but Edinburgh is responsible for implementing it.
As the RSE's report explains, the energy crisis won't be addressed either by building wind-farms on the Isle of Lewis, or by licensing replacements for the nuclear plants that now produce half of Scotland's electricity. What's needed instead is a wide diversity of approaches to electricity generation and to energy use and distribution, and a comprehensive, integrated strategy for their implementation. The report's 37 recommendations are not a cop-out from making choices, but are instead a realistic acknowledgement of the breadth of the problem.
Some of the recommendations concern such humdrum matters as making more effective use of existing planning regulations to construct energy-efficient buildings — an area in which Britain has always lagged behind its neighbours. The report also calls for a more diverse approach to renewable energy, pointing out that the Scottish Executive's existing incentive system serves to promote wind capacity (which can be built now) over alternatives such as wave power that require further research and development. And it suggests that the executive should promote research collaborations in technologies such as clean coal and wave power, in which local industrial companies and researchers have international expertise.
But the most important recommendation is perhaps the dullest: a call for an agency, outside the government but answerable to it, that will formulate, champion and implement an energy strategy. This demand is also pertinent to Britain as a whole, which shut its energy department in 1992. But it isn't at all clear whether the resources will be provided to establish such an agency.
Maxwell Irvine, the physicist who chaired the RSE panel, fears that without a comprehensive energy strategy, Britain's privately owned electricity industry will repeat the ‘dash-for-gas’ — the Thatcherite energy policy of the 1980s. That policy caused the nation to burn its irreplaceable North Sea gas supplies, rendering itself dependent, in the long term, on imported gas to keep the lights on.
The RSE committee, which raised funds for the study from foundations and other sources, is to be congratulated on bringing some sanity to an energy debate that is becoming unhinged from reality. In elections next spring, for example, the ruling coalition in the Scottish parliament looks set to split over the issue of nuclear power.
What is needed instead, in Scotland, the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere, is a rational energy strategy, executed by a competent agency. It is only this that can take energy usage over many years to a sustainable position, with no more lurches from complacency to crisis.
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Urgent but balanced. Nature 441, 907–908 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/441907b