Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Energy security

On the day of the funeral of Anna Politkovskaya it hardly seems necessary to point out the failings of the Russian Federation. The narrow view of the Russian regime about its own national interest marks them out as a country that does not believe in the benefits of free trade. The Kremlin sees power as a zero sum game, in every case there must be winners and losers. The idea that a given course of action could lead to winners on all sides is pretty alien to thinking that was conditioned by the brutalities of the KGB.

The pattern that Russia is establishing in developing its hydro carbon reserves demonstrates that no non-Russian company will be allowed to benefit in any way from these reserves. Energy, for the Putin regime, is a weapon that can be used to pressure, influence and threaten. Ukraine, Georgia and other countries have felt the use of the Russian energy weapon. Soon it will be the turn of the European Union, unless we can successfully diversify our energy supplies away from reliance on Russian oil and especially gas.

For most of the past 40 years Britain has been protected from the threat of energy boycotts or even an increase in prices, because we had substantial energy resources in the North Sea. However these reserves are now running down. Britain's energy demand continues to rise, just as our supplies are falling.

Meanwhile the evidence that fossil fuels are a significant factor in global warming is growing stronger. The threat of pollution-driven climate change becoming irreversible is growing. It is clear that Britain must increase the supply of energy from renewable resources and if at all possible, reduce our consumption of energy overall.

The gimmickry of David Cameron has at least increased awareness amongst Conservatives about the problem, but the proposals he has made lack any real substance. Meanwhile the solution from Labour: build more nuclear power stations, carries its own threat of pollution and problems that we do not yet know how to solve.

The Liberal Democrat proposals of shifting the tax burden against polluters at least addresses the key issue: money. However there is still a battle to be won for hearts and minds. I spent a day on the Essex coast- at Bradwell- a week or so ago. Bradwell is the home of one of the earliest nuclear power stations- a station which is now in the process of decommissioning. No one knows how long the process will take- at least a century. It takes over a hundred years to clean up a station that only had a generating life of less than forty years! Meanwhile there is a proposal to build a wind farm in the same area. One might have thought that there would be broad support, after all it will help to replace jobs that have been lost after the closure of Bradwell, and wind farms are seen by many as a positive. However, the NIMBY faction has got in quick- and protests about the wind farm are conspicuous.

In Scotland, there has been a more positive view- as technology improves, the farms are set to contribute a substantial boost to the range of renewable resources and, while each application should be reviewed on its merits, the stance is -and should be- broadly positive. Other resources, especially solar, could be combined with better energy storage technology- perhaps in the future based on hydrogen- to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels. Aberdeen, for example, having been a leader in oil support technology should now be thinking about supporting research to improve the diversity of the regional economy- while at the same time using the expertise in energy that the city has acquired over the past forty years.

The short term threat is that Russia will start to dictate our foreign policy, the long term future is that our coast will erode and sea levels rise to flood many of our major cities.

In the end, we may end up being grateful to the short sighted brutality of the Russian Federation for making us see more clearly where our true interests lie.


RK said...

I'm afraid the NIMBY attitude is alive and well in Scotland as well. I recall proposals for a massive wind farm on Lewis meeting stiff opposition despite what I thought was a fairly generous deal being on offer to residents. More generally building wind farms in windy often remote areas requires a means to transport that energy to where it's needed. The campaign against the building of this infrastructure is well established with some big name backers. Their solution is for the electricity to be transported underground further erroding the economic viability of the farms.

Most of the opposition to wind farms and the electricity infrastructure to support them are basically asthetic. Concerns over noise and eyesores in scenic areas all seem petty to me when set against global warming and the potentially spiralling costs of energy. There are some genuine enviromental concerns in the threat posed to bird life but it cannot be beyond the wit of man to find a way to mitigate that.

Whatever government is in office they need to have the courage to stand up to NIMBYs everywhere.

Cicero said...

Not much to disagree with here- standing up to vested interests used to be called leadership- a quality in short supply right now.