Saturday, June 15, 2013

New energy sources just kick the can

"Fire ice" is a term to intoxicate the word-lover. The substance is methane hydrate (or clathrate, meaning "caged"): a crystalline structure of water contains the gas molecules deep under the sea, and it's thought there may be a lot of it.

In this week's Spectator "Energy Special" section, Charles Mann spins a candy-floss speculation about its implications "for oil sheiks - and for greens", before admitting that the Japanese exploration may come to nothing, or prove very expensive. For it's one thing to identify an energy source, and another to exploit it in a cost-effective way.

Similarly, Martin Vander Weyer reflects on the dubious prospects for UK shale fracking: maybe 10-15 years of another cheap energy bonanza, maybe nothing.

Of the three articles in that section, Matthew Sinclair's is the most penetrating, because he sees that the more money spent on getting energy, the less there is for the rest of the economy.

Setting aside ecologists' concerns about the climatic effects of the large-scale burning of fossil fuels of any kind - and I think they're legitimate - there is A K Haart's question posed on The Energy Page last month: will we use the opportunity wisely? Otherwise, as he says, quoting Michael Edwardes from 1980, we'd be better off leaving the stuff in the ground.

Britain's Industrial Revolution began in the eighteenth century with coal and water (and the construction of canals and railways); then there was Easy Oil, taking off in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the opening of world markets to the products of Western technology. After that, we came to Harder-to-Get Oil and a globalised economy that has undercut Western labour for thirty years, plus an increasingly detached Western uberclass that blithely imported dividend-sustaining cheap labour and painted its critics as racists. Now we have increasing structural unemployment and pseudo-Green global energy policies that transfer industrial productive capacity to the East, where fossil fuels are ruthlessly exploited to stay ahead of political-economic disaster, like a fox running through the fields with its tail on fire.

It's demand we must manage, not supply. After all the energy efficiencies we can introduce, we shall have to expect less materially per capita - though that is not the same as diminished happiness.

If we run to the agenda of the amoral elite, the solution will be in various appalling forms of population reduction; the alternative is a kind of revolution - peaceful, of course, as those in power have more information and destructive capability than ever.

In the end, all these practical issues will resolve themselves into philosophical, moral and spiritual questions about the Good Life.

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James Higham said...

How to 'manage' demand?

Sackerson said...

Good question. Hope it's not just through price, or Zil lanes. But what about having things closer to where people are, and encouraging more home-based working? And not having computers on 24/7, etc.

Nick Drew said...

'demand-side response' or 'demand-side management' has a lot of potential - and if you fantasize about the 'smart grid', a staggering amount of potential

it's got off on the wrong foot, though, and the Bookers of this world have decided it's a communist plot to ration electricity

well I suppose there are some greenie-lefties who'd love to ration electricity but basically this paranoia is daft - nothing could be more free-market than to give people a clear price-signal for switching off, and paying them to do so