Renewable Energy: If not for our trees, then for our safety.

Renewable energy seem to be on the news all the time nowadays and – whether it’s the ongoing debate surrounding climate change, NIMBYism writ large with onshore wind turbines or alongside rising energy prices – we just can’t escape. The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan laid out by Ed Miliband under the Labour Government sets out a target of 30% of energy to come from renewable sources by 2020, which seems admirable – but in reality, it doesn’t go far enough. Denmark has trumped this, and passed a law that calls for 100% of energy from renewable sources by 2050.

Before you read any further, a clarification – this is not, in any way, an argument for the need of a ‘low carbon’ economy on environmental grounds since, quite simply, the UK makes up 2% of global energy demand. Our proportion will only decrease as India, China, Pakistan, the whole of Africa and Latin America continue on their march towards modernity and, like we did in the 19th/20th century (and mainly continue to do), emphasise growth over the environment. We simply don’t matter in any conversation about emissions, especially when the US refuses to take basic action including signing the Kyoto Protocol or stalling the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009.

Unfortunately, in the UK there seems to be a reluctance to voice the main reason for why a shift away from fossil fuels towards renewable ‘green’ energy is vital – security (be it economic, defensive, or health focused). Energy is the motor of our civilization – nearly everything we do involves energy in so many ways, energy which we take for granted. What most of us don’t consider is what will we do when the source of our energy runs out – or ever worse, what will we do when we can no longer afford enough energy to meet our own needs, but countries around us can and leave us behind?

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In 2008 the UK’s energy imports made up 19% of the UK’s trade deficit, falling modestly to 16% in 2009. Our energy, like our vodka, is imported primarily from Russia. Since 2000, the UK’s imports of coal has grew from 0.2 to 19 million tonnes, whilst 12% of our crude oil comes from Russia, followed by the bastions of stability Nigeria and Libya, both at 4%. (From: Energy imports and exports, House of Commons Library, pdf here). Importing that we need isn’t inherently a bad thing – without imports, we wouldn’t have had Friends, the House of Windsor or Jedward. But importing is essentially dependence, and the UK has gotten too confident in the security of energy sources from states that may not always be friends. On a Europe wide basis, this dependence on Russia is even more worrying – according to Amanda Hadfield, “average estimations suggest that Europe – and by extension the political unit of the EU – is roughly 30-50% dependent on Russian gas for its total imports and 26-30% dependent upon Russian oil.” (Hadfield, Foreign policy: Theories, Actors and Cases, p.328).

In terms of a security perpesctive, there are numerous reasons why we should be cautious of dependence on Russia. The main is that Russia is an unreliable partner – it has shown this in numerous cases, via the nearly annual ‘Gas Spat’ (e.g. 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011) between Russia and Ukraine, through where most pipelines to Europe run. However, the EU has failed to act strongly against this attack on their interests and member states have also not thrown down the gauntlet. For the UK, this isn’t a serious problem – yet. As own own capacity via North Sea oil continues to dwindle, the UK will find itself beholden to Russian demands on the political and economic level. Without basic energy needs being met, there are risks of a return to the ‘3 day week’, regular blackouts and rising prices. In the worst case scenario, Britain becomes a sitting duck for attacks since we lack the energy resources to maintain complex computer networks and defence systems.

It is not realistically possible for the UK to diversify it’s sources cheaply either – if not due to OPEC artificially inflating prices, then down to the fact that new discoveries tend to be in difficult to access areas due to “geographic, environmental or political reasons” (Klare, Security Studies – an introduction, p.490). As such, importing energy from a secure, reliable source is getting harder and harder, as well as more expensive. This is why those who are unconvinced by the climate change debate should endorse a shift to renewable energy.

Renewable? Why not nuclear? Nuclear power is an option, albeit currently surrounded by scare stories – yes, the disaster at Fukushima was tragic, but it wasn’t down to nuclear power itself. It was down to building a nuclear site in an earthquake prone area, and allowing some reactors to stand that were designed in the 1960s. There are issues regarding waste storage and targets for terrorist attacks, both of which are legitimate. However, it seems defeatist to halt progress for fear of a bombing or increased targeting – if we did that, the terrorists have pretty much won already. But like with fossil fuels, it isn’t wise to put all our eggs in one basket. Nuclear can form the spine of our energy situation, but the UK would still be reliant on imports of uranium as it is oil now – thus only offsetting the problem of dependability for future generations to tackle.

The real focus should be on the prospects of tidal power, where currently there is a distinct lack of attention paid. The Sustainable Development Commission states that there is the potential for 4.4% of our energy requirements to be generated from the Severn Estuary, and it isn’t apparent why this can not be rolled out across the UK. Unlike the current main energy supplies now, the cost of the the raw materials wont rise helping keep energy bills at a constant, predictable level. Powers for maintenance devolved to local councils allowing any profits made to be reinvested into local energy needs, or used to reduce energy bills or council tax. This would also have the benefit of reducing the need of onshore wind turbines, which are not only a blight on the landscape but are hideously inefficient – one study found that they ran at 22% capacity between November 2009 and December 2010. The wind may not always blow and the sun may not always shine, but the tides always turn. And with Global Warming there’ll be more water to produce energy.

So, next time you hear the government talk about renewable energy, don’t groan. Quite simply, we can’t go on like this – the status quo leaves us open to wild fluctuations in price which hit families hard, the rise of cut off supplies on the whim of a semi-dictator and near-consistent increases in domestic energy bills. The right types of renewable energy have the potential to make the UK a net energy exporter again, diversifying our economy and reversing our trade deficit. They have the potential to reduce domestic energy prices. And most importantly, they have the potential to reduce British dependence on foreign sources of fuel – sources that we can not rely on when times are tough.Renewable energy can be about tree-hugging and wind farms, but for ChairmanDavey it’s mainly to keep him safe – keeping vital computer systems, defence systems and surveillance systems running. Oh, and Facebook.

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