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The Great Energy Reckoning
The energy crisis reveals uncomfortable truths about our way of life
Next month, the iconic Battersea Power Station on the Thames will open once more. But rather than generating electricity, it will provide a setting for shops, office space and a hotel, flanked by luxury apartments.
The power station, built in two stages from the 1930s-50s, was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who also worked on the Bankside Power Station that now serves as the Tate Modern museum. Scott’s riverside masterpieces are a perfect symbol for our ambiguous relationship with the production of energy. Their beauty echoes the form of the medieval brick cathedral, a fitting allusion given the absolute centrality of electricity to modern society. On the other hand, Scott’s involvement in the buildings owed much to the complaints of wealthy Londoners that something as ugly as a power station might besmirch their skyline.
In other words, these buildings were not just a recognition of our dependence on energy, but also an effort to disguise it. The success of that effort is shown by how eagerly Scott’s power stations have been adopted into the postindustrial cityscape, as cathedrals of tourism, services and retail.
The crises afflicting the world today have revealed the limits of our own appreciation for the role of energy in our lives. Climate change has, in theory, made us acutely aware of our dependence on hydrocarbons (i.e. coal, oil and gas), and quite rightly, as we see energy shortages exacerbated by drought and extreme heat from Sichuan to California to Europe. But while we may feel guilt for flying too often, or read emissions figures with a sense of dread, decades of relative energy abundance have saved us from the burden of thinking in too much detail about how hydrocarbons are diffused into every dimension of a modern lifestyle.
It is only now, as the withdrawal of Russian gas raises the prospect of rationing across Europe this winter, that we see what a serious reduction in energy consumption would actually entail.
The most dramatic examples of energy crisis have come from Germany, which is Europe’s industrial powerhouse and also heavily reliant on Russian gas. Consider Heinz-Glas, a 400 year old company in Rennsteig, central Germany, whose furnaces produce seventy tons of small glass bottles every day, around six per second. If you use perfume by Yves Saint Laurent or Estée Lauder, one of these bottles is sitting on your shelf. Heinz-Glas now faces ruin because its operation requires that furnaces be kept heated to 1600C around the clock; the company estimates the Rennsteig region’s glass industry needs “as much electricity as a town with 400,000 inhabitants and as much natural gas as 85,000 single-family houses.”
In a taste of the trade-offs to come, Germany has already stopped illuminating its historic buildings at night, and removed heating from public swimming pools. More ominously, CERN’s hadron collider, one of modern science’s greatest monuments, may be forced to shut down.
Maybe you can do without decorative glass and particle physics. But our material culture depends on hydrocarbons at the most basic level, where energy-intensive industries feed into products of every kind. Steel, for instance, is a benchmark of economic development, needed for buildings and bridges, vehicles and machines. Likewise, the chemical industry is crucial for everything from pharmaceuticals and fertiliser to chewing gum and microchips. Both require enormous amounts of energy, and gas in particular. A single chemical factory complex in Ludwigshafen, Germany, uses as much energy as the nation of Denmark.
Nor is it just our material culture at stake. Even on the other side of the digital frontier, we are still dependent on industrial-scale energy consumption. In the UK, two and a half percent of electricity is now consumed by data centres – huge warehouses packed with up to a million servers each, requiring intensive air conditioning – a figure projected to rise to six percent by 2030. The proliferation of data centres in the south east of England has reportedly forced local authorities to limit the construction of much-needed housing, since the power grid is running short of capacity.
As energy shortages threaten us in these diverse ways, it becomes clear how in practice we have taken energy consumption for granted, even as we appear highly conscious of it in principal. The modern world, like Scott’s power stations, is essentially an elaborate facade constructed around the monumental but largely unseen world of energy infrastructure that sustains it.
Oil production has its wells and pipelines, its tankers and port facilities, its storage tanks and refineries. Natural gas is cooled to minus-160C to be shipped in liquid form, docked at special terminals and processed by “regasification” facilities. The fast-growing world of renewable energy incorporates vast forests of wind turbines on the Mongolian plains, and huge expanses of solar panels on the Tibetan plateau. Such are the engineering marvels that silently deliver electricity to our grids, gas to our pipes and petrol to our pumps.
But it is not just consumers who have taken the smooth functioning of this system for granted. The same pattern is reflected at a political level in many western states, where rhetoric about meeting the energy needs of tomorrow through renewable technologies is matched by negligence towards energy security today. Europe has long curtailed domestic gas extraction, which sounds good from a green perspective until you consider that it has become reliant on Russian gas instead, while frequently burning coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, as a backup. In the United States, energy deregulation has seen subsidised renewables and last-minute natural gas shipments squeezing more reliable power stations out of the market, which has degraded infrastructure and amplified the effects of supply crunches.
Similarly, in an echo of the problems in the health care system revealed by the Covid pandemic, the UK is more vulnerable to blackouts this winter due to its “just in time” approach to acquiring natural gas. You wouldn’t know it looking at your utility bills, but Britain does not currently lack gas; in fact, it is providing fifteen percent of continental Europe’s supplies. But it does lack storage. Despite Britain’s energy regulator sounding the alarm since 2009, governments have refused to invest in gas storage, unwilling to intervene in the market with subsidies.
The result is that Britain only has storage capacity for two percent of its annual demand, while some of its European neighbours have ten or twenty times as much. Now a lapsed gas storage site in the North Sea is being hastily restored, recalling the frantic efforts to provide more hospital beds during the pandemic.
In general, planning failures are facilitated by an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” approach in the public: we tend to resist new energy projects at home, whether through NIMBYism or concern for the environment, while happily consuming energy imported from afar. On the other hand, even with the best planning imaginable, all but a handful of the world’s countries would still rely on the global market for much of their energy; an unsettling fact that further encourages us not to think about such matters too deeply. Harvesting fossil fuels, uranium, sun or wind can only take place where those resources are present, and as Putin’s efforts to blackmail Europe remind us, the temptation to withhold access to them for political leverage can outweigh the enormous profits they provide.
The risks of longstanding reliance on petro-dictatorships is certainly another reason to pursue clean energy abundance. But failing to appreciate the extent of our energy needs will create problems here as well.
Many new forms of energy production are trying to overcome the tension of Scott’s Thames-side power stations, occupying the built environment not as homages to the past but as proudly modern celebrations of clean energy. Digital mock-ups of the modular nuclear reactors being designed by Rolls Royce, for instance, show an elegant structure in visual harmony with its surroundings. A waste-to-energy plant in Copenhagen features an artificial ski-slope on its roof, while a prototype nuclear fusion plant in Oxfordshire will double as a tourist destination with its built-in viewing gallery. Photovitalic building materials – think of houses made from solar panels – promise to integrate energy production with daily life at the most intimate level.
But our embrace of such technologies will only create further disillusionment if we don’t recognise the wider energy context in which they will appear. For one thing, much of the confidence in the inevitable decline of fossil fuels seems misplaced. It’s true that low-carbon sources (including nuclear) already account for a third of global electricity, but looking at global energy consumption as a whole, the proportion is much smaller (perhaps fifteen percent). Energy intensive industries like those mentioned earlier – chemicals, steel, aluminium, fertiliser, glass, concrete, automobiles, etc – are much harder to convert to renewable sources than electricity grids are.
As Cambridge professor Helen Thompson has often pointed out, the energy demand created by industrialisation in the developing world, led by China and India, means that short of an unforeseen breakthrough in renewables technology, global fossil fuel consumption will continue to increase even as more energy comes from clean sources. Nothing illustrates this better than the ongoing demand for coal, the oldest industrial energy source, more of which was burned last year for electricity than ever before.
Moreover, to produce the technologies needed for clean energy, such as wind-turbines, solar-panels and storage systems, we will need to mine enormous quantities of minerals from the earth’s surface. Not only does this mean the continuing exploitation of nature for resources like copper and lithium; these raw materials, like fossil fuels, are only found in certain places, and so will ensure that energy production remains vulnerable to the contingencies of geopolitics.
There is, in short, no simple way of overcoming the ugly consequences of energy consumption. For the foreseeable future, maintaining a modern way of life will require spanning the world with our dark satanic mills, however well we conceal them from view. Only by acknowledging that tragedy can we properly assess the need to change our energy habits, and the enormous adjustments this would involve.
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