Where will you be when the lights go out?

Prices in Ireland have, mercifully, started to ease back from the highs of a year or two ago, yet some things remain extraordinarily cheap. The two things that contribute probably more than anything else to our overall well-being, comfort, security and physical health are electricity and safe drinking water on tap. Yet, the former is dirt cheap and the latter, for most people, doesn’t cost a red cent, no matter how much you use, or whether you leave the taps on 24 hours a day.

A reliable electrical supply is the nervous system of industrial civilisation; without it, we are, in every sense of the word, in the dark. Yet the average Irish family of four will pay around €800 a year – or barely €2.50 a day – for their total electrical requirements. It’s only when the power goes out that you get even an inkling of just how utterly we depend on electricity. Without it, water doesn’t flow, toilets stop flushing and the 1001 electrical appliances, from mobile phones to kettles, upon which we depend will all be rendered useless, either instantly, or in the length of time it takes for a battery to run down.

It’s disturbing to read this weekend that the UK could face blackouts in the next seven years because green energy is not coming on stream fast enough. This information comes courtesy of Prof David MacKay (author of the superb recent book, ‘Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air) who takes up his post at the Department of Energy at the start of next month. MacKay points to Nimby objectors to energy projects, saying they may well cause the lights to go out over Britain – an achievement even Herr Hitler was incapable of attaining.

His book argued that British energy policy is moving in the right direction, but the sums on energy provision simply do not add up – in simple terms, not enough power capacity is being built. He now argues this means Britain could face blackouts by 2016 – when coal and nuclear stations are phased out.

Prof MacKay blamed the public for opposing wind farms, nuclear power, and energy imports, whilst refusing to accept any diminution in their own lifestyles.You cannot oppose them all, MacKay argues, and at the same time have a viable policy on energy and climate change.

However bad thing are in the UK, I reckon Ireland’s situation is at least as perilous. First, thanks to our tremendous moral purity, not only have we zero nuclear energy, we even have government legislation outlawing nuclear power (come to think of it, didn’t we have similar legislation banning condoms and criminalising homosexuality until recently too?). So zero chances of cutting our carbon emissions via nuclear.

I keep hearing about Ireland’s extraordinary renewable resources, including wind and wave/tidal. The best of them are on the west coast, necessitating the construction of many industrial-scale installations, plus criss-crossing the country with a seriously upgraded national grid.

Hmmmm. Pylons. Wind turbines. One or more likely both of these will be fought tooth and nail, parish by parish, right across the country, with opposition not just from the usual Nimby knuckle-draggers, but also from people who would describe themselves as environmentalists, who will want to preserve the bits of our pristine heritage the developers missed in the last few years.

In a country where a few highly motivated nut jobs can create pandemonium over something as ridiculous as the rod licence or the “right” of estuary fishermen to wipe out fish attempting to go up-stream to breed to continue their selfish plunder, what are the odds of us suddenly developing the political maturity and sense of common purpose to all pull together on something as abstract as energy security. Who cares about the future: as the old joke goes, what has the future ever done for us?

There is a good chance the lights will begin to go out in Ireland even before 2016. “The fifth revolution will come when we have spent the stores of coal and oil that have been accumulating in the earth during hundreds of millions of years”, wrote Sir Charles Galton Darwin in 1953. “It is obvious that there will be a very great difference in ways of life … a man has to alter his way of life considerably, when, after living for years on his capital, he suddenly finds he has to earn any money he wants to spend … This change may justly be called a revolution, but it differs from all the preceding ones in that there is no likelihood of its leading to increases of population, but even perhaps to the reverse”.

A very real issue is how to engage with the Irish electorate and political system that sees dirt-cheap energy as a right, and is profoundly ignorant of just how fragile our relationship with the systems that support our way of life has become. Prof MacKay’s message is a welcome wake-up call.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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One Response to Where will you be when the lights go out?

  1. Ian says:

    Hi John,

    According to your source, the UK’s old coal and nuclear generators are due to close in 2016. But what about the new ones coming online?

    “We’ve got to stop saying no to these things and understand that we do have a serious building project on our hands,” Professor MacKay added.

    As MacKay surely knows, most people are missing the “serious” part of energy supply and climate change. Because all systems are go at the moment, and the weather isn’t going haywire, energy security and climate change are left to the men in white coats, or worse, to a green lifestylist fringe.

    Whatever about an energy gap; there’s a huge reality gap out there!

    The question is, given electricity problems, how do we keep the internet working?

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