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Stepping back from the edge of the energy crisis

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Stepping back from the edge of the energy crisis
We’ve all been affected by the global energy crisis but to pin the problem solely on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or the answer solely on the building of new power stations, is misguided. 
So says Jonathan Maxwell, author of The Edge and respected as Britain’s leading energy-saving expert. He explains how, instead, we need to focus on cutting down energy wastage to solve the problem.

Q. In simple terms, why is the UK currently in the midst of an energy crisis?

A. As an energy importer, the UK is vulnerable to both the supply and the international price of energy. Energy prices have been relatively high and volatile, particularly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which previously supplied 40% of Europe’s natural gas.

Q. How secure is the UK’s energy supplies compared to continental Europe?

A. The UK’s advantages include a diversity of supply, including a number of international interconnectors, nuclear, reserves of oil and gas (albeit declining) in the North Sea, and some of the best renewable energy resources in Europe, including around a quarter of the offshore wind capacity and substantial hydroelectricity.
However, challenges include a thin margin between supply and demand, need for grid modernisation, and, according to the International Energy Agency and other sources, an even more inefficient energy system that continental Europe.

Q. Is the solution to the crisis building new power plants, as the Government suggests?

A. Building new power plants will be important, particularly efficient ones and preferably as low carbon as possible, such as solar and wind. However, it is truly shocking that 62% of energy used to generate electricity in the UK (and taking into account all sources of energy such as natural gas, nuclear, renewables, or coal) is actually lost, mostly to heat. Principally, this is because power is generated too far away from the point of production to use the heat that comes off the power plants in the generation process, so the result is that it is simply wasted. Given this, building new power plants comes with the issue that most of the energy will be lost unless enough of it is built closer to the point of use. Smaller scale, decentralised or on-site energy generation using solar and other sources also come with the advantage that they can be built quickly and face less planning and grid constraints compared to centralised utility scale power plants that can take years or even decades to plan, build, and commission.

Q. Are homeowners mostly to blame for energy wastage?

A. No, nearly two thirds of energy used in the UK is used outside of the domestic sector, in public, commercial, and industrial buildings and transport.
Energy-saving expert Jonathan Maxwell’s new book The Edge is an essential and urgent read that will shed new light on our darkest days.
Jonathan Maxwell

Q. Why can’t we just build more solar panels to solve the shortfall in energy?

A. Solar panels generate electricity, which so far only represents some 20% of energy use. It will take a long time before electricity starts to meaningfully displace fossil fuels as a source of energy for heat, transport and so on. In addition, it can take many years to build utility scale, grid-connected, centralised solar plants and they can face planning objections. Solar, particularly decentralised, on-site solutions are part of the answer, but not all of it.

Q. Is the UK going to face blackouts this winter?

A. The margin between electricity supply and demand in the UK has been low for at least a decade. Much will depend on how cold the winter is, which will affect the demand for natural gas versus the levels of supply and storage available. In combination with ageing or vulnerable points in grid infrastructure, this could create ‘brown outs’, where power reduces, or ‘black outs’ where it runs out for a period.

Q. What is the long-term answer to the energy crisis?

A. Efficiency and diversification. It’s not ‘all of this’ or ‘all of that’ but ‘all of it’. We need to plan for the long term by investing in new energy generation, but for that to be as low-carbon and as efficient as possible, which means closer to the point of use. We also need to be efficient in how we use energy when it reaches the point of use because 10–30-plus percent of the surviving energy can be lost through inefficient equipment such as lighting, air conditioning, insulation, and controls.
The Edge is the only book you need to make sense of the global energy crisis.
The Edge

Q. What will readers gain from reading your book, The Edge?

A. The Edge illustrates how competition for coveted resources such as energy contributes both to the climate crisis and geopolitical crises. Its purpose is to demystify some of the biggest geopolitical news stories of the present day by examining them through the lens of energy and resource competition. These, of course, include the current Russia-Ukraine conflict as well as the rising tensions in other parts of the world such as the South China Sea and the Arctic. The book aims to challenge certain assumptions around how adding new renewable energy capacity will, in itself, solve these problems and instead urges readers, whether they are government or business leaders, or the wider public, to consider the paradox that most of these resources are being wasted, and that it is this wastage which is the greatest problem that needs to be solved. In doing so, The Edge presents the prospect of a more productive, rather than a more costly, sustainable future.

Q. What can ordinary people do to help do their bit in reducing energy wastage?

A. Challenge your employer, local authority, or MP to disclose how much resource is being wasted in their process or supply chain and to stop it. At home, be thoughtful not to waste energy in electrical appliances or in domestic heating. Consider switching things off when you don’t use them and sourcing low-carbon energy, preferably locally.

Q. What will life be like 10 years from now if nothing is done to address the root causes of the energy crisis?

A. Globally, scientists believe that there is a limit as to how much more carbon society can emit before Earth is unable to absorb enough to keep global warming below key thresholds. In 10 years’ time, we would have used up these limits. In the meantime, we have energy costs and energy security to worry about. If we do nothing different, better, or more efficiently, we can expect higher prices and a lack of energy availability when we need it.
The Edge: How competition for resources is pushing the world, and its climate, to the brink – and what we can do about it by Jonathan Maxwell (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) is out now on Amazon, priced £25 in hardcover and £14.99 as an eBook. For more information about SDCL Group, visit www.sdclgroup.com.

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