Their desire to not be left behind might seem rather academic, as they already have been - both by a warming climate and countries whose embrace of renewable energy is far advanced.
Their report on pathways to 2030 is littered with the buzzwords for a more sustainable energy system. It looks at everything from more decentralised energy generation to a “whole systems” approach, energy efficiency and even “reducing energy demand”
Contrary to previous official expectations of rising demand, it expects demand to remain roughly stable, but describes an otherwise substantially changing energy market overseen by uncertain government policies that threaten the investment needed for transformation.
Late in 2015 the Department for Energy and Climate Change cut its projection for new renewable energy capacity coming on stream by 2015 by more than one-third from 34 gigawatts (GW) to 22GW. It emerged around the same time that the big six energy suppliers represented by Energy UK had all dropped their green electricity tariffs.
Both the big energy companies and government seem to lack any idea of the scale and speed of transition in infrastructure that nations are capable of. Perhaps they need a reminder.
Taking a lesson from the dark side, our initial system-wide addiction to fossil fuels was a rapid affair. Starting in 1956 the US Interstate Highway System, for example, managed to build 47,000 miles of highway in just over three decades, “changing commerce and society”.
A century earlier, Britain demonstrated the capacity for the rapid rollout of a more benign transport system when just between the years of 1845 and 1852 there were 4,400 miles of railway track laid. A single weekend in 1892 saw the upgrading of 177 miles of track on the Great Western route by 4,200 well-coordinated workers.
It is astonishing by the contemporary standards of apparent official impotence to solve the crisis in the housing market (also a key energy issue), that in Britain’s battered and far more indebted post-war condition, the number of homes built annually by local authorities in the early 1950s hit 250,000, and under a Conservative government. Under a Labour government social housing around 1967-68 still saw around 200,000 homes built with the private sector building a similar number, before such ambition fell off a cliff in the 1980s. In comparison, during 2014-15 just 1,350 homes were completed by local authorities in England and the private sector built less than half what it did during the mid 1960s.
It is possible to transform societies in response to positive visions of “homes fit for heroes”, but also to mobilise rapidly to fight against the external threats that called for the heroes in the first place. Against significant, official intransigence, from 1936–39 dozens of factories were built or repurposed around Britain as part of a “shadow factories” programme to produce the military hardware for the war effort. And, when they were bombed, as they often were, in great adversity the factories were rapidly repaired and returned to production.
Compared to proven historical ability, even the boldest comments of the big energy companies appear tentative and insipid. Recent human migration in response to conflict and other drivers seems to stress our ability to adapt. But forms of large scale adaptation are happening all the time in response to economic and demographic change. It took an estimated 10,000 years for the world’s urban population to add up to 1 billion. Going from 2-3 billion took just 17 years, from 1985–2002. Somehow, however imperfectly and haphazardly, we adapted, responding with urban infrastructures to provide shelter and basic services.
What’s needed now is a more conscious, bold and planned programme to achieve the rapid transition of an energy system to response to a known challenge with clear targets.
Denmark as a small nation provides in microcosm a classic example. An incentive scheme brought communities and investors together creating both grassroots support and a secure investment environment. In two decades from 1983, 3GW of wind energy capacity were installed. By 2014 wind power was providng 39% of Danish electricity.
Internationally things are changing fast. Even in the fossil fuel-hungry United States, 8GW of wind were installed in 2015. And in China, for all its problems, nearly 20GW of wind power were introduced in a single year, 2014. Which is more than the UK’s current total installed capacity, onshore and offshore, of wind energy, of just over 14GW.
We should applaud the change of tone from Energy UK, but remind them that what makes a real difference finally is: deeds not words.
Posted on Friday Mar 4