Julian Huppert writes: Decarbonising Britain – making the sums add up

sustainable energyThere’s an excellent book by Prof David MacKay called ‘Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air’. This is a must read for anyone interested in energy policy.   To help with that, it’s available entirely for free, at http://www.withouthotair.com – although you can buy a copy if, like me, you think you’ll want to keep it to hand.

Essentially, David MacKay highlights that whatever we do, we have to ensure that the amount of energy used does not exceed the amount of energy available.

How do we strike this balance? The first thing we can do is reduce our energy usage – that’s why I and so many others care about energy efficiency. Not using a kWh of energy is far more environmentally friendly than generating by any means!

National schemes like the Green Investment Bank and Green Deal, and local schemes such as the Cambridge Retrofit project, which aims to insulate every building in Cambridge by 2040 can help us do this.

But whatever we do, we will still be left with a demand for energy, which we have to meet.

We can harvest some energy from solar, some from wind, some from nuclear, some from gas, some from HEP and so on, but together it has to add up. Magic energy that just appears would be great, and the ultimate solution is fusion – but we’re 25 years away from that, as we have been for 50 years.

Every way of generating energy has its downsides; there is no perfect solution. To power an entire country, we’re talking about LOTS of wind turbines, LOTS of solar panels and so forth. We shouldn’t pretend these have no negatives, great though they are.

We also have to ensure that there is energy available when we need it – not just when it is sunny and windy. Better battery technology, enabling us to easily store surplus energy for when we need it, would help enormously, but we’re not there yet. So we have to have some base load available for those dead times.

What should that be? Well, coal, oil, gas and nuclear are the main options. HEP can work – but is a long way from being on the right scale. Tidal? Wave? Well, perhaps – but we’re not there yet either.

And then there’s the pressing risk of climate change. I take this incredibly seriously – it is the biggest threat we face as a species. We have to decarbonise our fuel, and we have to do it quickly.

Which is why as an environmentalist and a huge supporter of renewables, I believe that nuclear has a place in our energy mix. To me, it’s that or a dash for gas, with all the consequences that it brings. That is why I will be proposing Option B, allowing the possible use of nuclear energy to help decarbonisation, at the zero carbon Britain debate at Conference.

Nuclear is not perfect – but then nothing is. But if we are serious about dealing with climate change, if we really want to reduce our carbon emissions, I cannot see an alternative.

* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15

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8 Comments

  • Richard Dean 12th Sep '13 - 10:06am

    I know human beings really don’t like to change much, re-locate homes or cites, etc, but is climate change really a “threat”? Surely it’s just a change? Might it even provide some benefits?

    Changes have happened to this world lots of times before. Not all were disasters.

  • Richard Church 12th Sep '13 - 10:15am

    Very well and clearly put by Julian. Without some nuclear the demand for coal and gas will be unstoppable. Of course climate change is a massive threat. It’s not just relocating homes and cities, although that is a threat enough, its not being able to grow the food we eat as entire eco sytems are destroyed.

  • Richard Dean 12th Sep '13 - 10:39am

    @Richard Church
    But won’t new ecosystems be created too? Maybe we could live better on them compared to now!

  • Simon McGrath 12th Sep '13 - 10:48am

    “Simon Oliver” – can you give us more info about these subsidies for fossil fuels?

  • A Social Liberal 12th Sep '13 - 1:22pm

    Yes, we need many more renewable energy projects. The problem is is that as soon as a project goes before a councils planning committee it is opposed by legions of NIMBYs.

    We have had two major developments stymied by locals who objected to their views being adulterated by wind turbines. On one site there are already turbines there but the villagers next door complained about it being upgraded, one farmer had the audacity to whinge about the flicker from the turbine blades and then got planning permission to put his own smaller turbine up.

    But it wasn’t just individuals objecting – it is everyone from the Campaign for Rural England to the Yorkshire Dales National Park, even though the latter didn’t have wither project within its borders.

    There is only one way to get the necessary planning permissions, take the decision away from the councils and give it to a committee of MPs, who have to remove themselves from any application in their constituency.

  • Richard Dean 12th Sep '13 - 1:32pm

    @A Social Liberal
    For consistency, then, should we do the same for fracking?

  • Malcolm Wood 13th Sep '13 - 1:35pm

    Nicely written. And indeed, if the government’s principal concern is always going to be economic growth, some way of making the rest of the increasingly-large economy increasingly independent of carbon emissions and/or energy usage is going to be needed. Another interesting book which overlaps with this subject is “Prosperity without Growth” by Tim Jackson. I find it hard to be optimistic about any of this, though.

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