LONDON — If all the energy experts, the analysts and the consultants are right — and often they are not — the people of Western Europe, and especially Britain, are in for an uncomfortable time over the next few years.
Coming soon, so the forecasts predict, are serious shortfalls in electricity supply, power cuts, falls in gas pressure (and outright interruptions to industry), Russian failures to meet their gas supply undertakings, further gasoline and diesel price increases, much higher electricity and gas prices (plus levies and taxes), still rising emissions of carbon and other polluting gases into the world’s atmosphere, much more burning of coal, especially in the developing world, rows about new nuclear power stations and about radioactive waste disposal, anger about forests of wind pylons in beauty spots, many icy winters ahead and nastier weather conditions everywhere.
At a time when public debate is full of talk about a greener, cleaner future and about the measures to reduce carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency, this may all sound pessimistic. Surely, the optimists argue, the rush for low-carbon technologies, hybrid vehicles and general energy and fuel savings will bring a more pleasant energy future. Surely this is just round the corner, because the political leaders and commentators have told us so.
Unfortunately what they have not told the public is that it all takes lots of time. There is indeed a possible, even probable, future coming later, say in 10 years, which, if the world and its leaders are both lucky and wise, could deliver plentiful clean, safe and reasonably priced energy supplies to power an energy hungry world, a halt to the growth of carbon and other polluting gases in the atmosphere, cleanly processed coal, oil and gas (both in natural and frozen form) in ample profusion, much more efficient use of energy supplies in homes and factories, more localized power generation, more power from the sun, bio-energy at competitive prices, cheaper (and safer) nuclear power plants producing massive flows of carbon-free electricity with minimal waste safely handled, and maybe even calmer world weather conditions.
Dependence on oil, at present shaping almost the entire transportation system in the modern world, as well as providing the basis for petrochemicals and a vast range of everyday products, could indeed be greatly eased, in turn reducing political tensions in the volatile and turbulent Middle East and other politically unreliable areas.
It is possible, but not if we stay on present paths, which lead only to a different and darker future. Fine rhetoric and grand global schemes for limiting carbon emissions will not do it. The future needs to be sharply different from the past in energy matters — and in much else besides. But those with authority, and with the power to give words wings, have yet to find the over-arching story with which to inspire, persuade and motivate.
In the meantime there are some awkward realities on the energy front to face and handle. Or to steal the resonant phrase used by former Vice President Al Gore from his scary movie about future climate catastrophe, there are some very imminent and very inconvenient truths to be confronted.
The first is that today’s world energy supply chain is very vulnerable indeed to terrorism. This is not just a vague fear. al-Qaida and other terrorist groups have all announced their intention to renew their attacks on what they call the crucial arteries of the capitalist West. The easiest targets, from their point of view, are the vast oil- and gas-handling installations in the Persian Gulf region and especially in Saudi Arabia.
Attacks have already been mounted against the very large Saudi oil-handling plant at Ab-Qaiq. If successful this would have blocked two-thirds of Saudi Arabia’s daily oil exports, which are in turn about one-ninth of the entire world’s oil supply. Attacks on oceangoing tankers, and on vulnerable vessels carrying frozen gas (LNG) are also likely — a matter particularly relevant to Japan with its heavy LNG dependency.
The second imminent threat, affecting Western Europe especially, is that Russian gas flows, which now feed about half of Europe’s needs, could falter seriously in the years immediately ahead. The gas is there under Russian soil, but the investment needed to extract and transport it has just not happened. The volatile Russian financial system has not been able to mobilize the billions of dollars needed.
The third awkwardness is that while old nuclear power stations are being closed, and old coal and oil plants declared unacceptably polluting, the decisions about investment in new nuclear capacity, or in clean-burning coal plants, or in fully commercial alternative energy sources like biomass, just keep on being postponed. Governments are nervous of making long-term energy infrastructure commitments that may turn out wrong. Private investors hesitate amid huge uncertainty about the future trend of prices and taxes. Big new energy schemes will anyway take years to implement.
So not only is the cleaner, greener tomorrow is still far, far away; there is a real prospect of a power shortfall just ahead. And high as hopes may be for the longer-term future, in the near term that is going to cause a lot of grief.
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