QUIGGERS: The energy conundrum

By IW Observer.co.uk Apr 29, 2022

‘The David’, as he is known on some parts of his desk, is indulging in his love of extreme sports. Swimming a length of the London Olympic pool, whilst carrying a packet of custard creams about his person – the rules state they must still be structurally sound enough to dunk into a cup of tea. Good luck!

Us normal people have managed our whole lives without being ambushed by a cake, or only eating half a sausage, but it looks like we will all be ambushed by the rising cost of living. Reported rates of inflation are between 6 and 8 per cent; sadly, the reality is higher.

One misconception of economies is they revolve around money; that it is the be all and end all of what makes the world go round. Those of you with an eye on world events will have started to question this assumption. Why?

Because it’s not a lack of money that is causing prices to rise, but a lack of energy – principally oil and gas. What economies really revolve around is access to and use of energy. Everything we do has a need for energy. That energy is almost always fossil-fuel based. Once the price of that energy goes up, due to scarcity of supply or profiteering in some cases, all prices quickly follow suit.

So what to do? “Extract more oil and gas and build nuclear,” but this isn’t the simple solution it appears. The cost of extraction, in money and energy terms, has increased to such a level that it doesn’t automatically bring prices down.

“Build nuclear;” apart from taking seven to 10 years to get a nuclear plant online, also requires a massive amount of fossil fuel to build and run, thus keeping demand and the price of oil high.

The other issue is physics. The first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed in form. That means the earth is a closed system for energy. In simple terms, £10 stays as £10 forever however many times it changes hands – it may be worth less, but is still money, but you can only burn a litre of oil once. Every time we use a unit of energy, it’s no longer available for future generations. Renewables can harness the sun and wind, but need oil and gas to make them. So we have to be careful how we manage that with current price rises.

We need to end our addiction to oil and gas and see the use of energy as a more equitable relationship than the accumulation of money. Seventy per cent of the world’s energy is consumed by the wealthiest 10 per cent of the population. It’s “their money” you say, so why not? Because money doesn’t cease to exist after a transaction; energy does.

During the first lockdown, usage of gas dropped by 11 per cent, bringing the price down to 50p a therm. It’s currently between £5 and £6 a therm. We need to reproduce that fall in consumption. It is possible; retrofitting all old housing stock with insulation, improving energy usage standards on new build housing and making public transport free (or as near to free as possible) would make huge improvements. But we also need to invest in farming, not just for food security, but for the important part well-managed land plays in sequestering carbon. In the short term, though, we need to put money back in people’s pockets so they can afford to survive.

So next time a billionaire wangs themselves into space, rather than treat them like a hero, we should ask what gives them the right to use our energy?