Keeping the lights on

Posted: 30 July 2007

Author: Walt Patterson

Walt Patterson has devoted much of his life to the problems of energy. Now he has put together, in an important new book, his definitive thoughts on sustainable energy in a world threatened by climate change and declining oil supplies. In this exclusive article for Planet 21, he sets out the book's central message: 'energy policy means infrastructure policy.'

Walt Patterson
Walt Patterson
On the bridge of the Titanic, they spot an iceberg. Quickly the captain barks the order: 'Rearrange the deckchairs!'

It won't do. When you see disaster looming you don't fiddle with incidentals. You change course. Climate change and 'supply security' are energy disasters in the making. But governments are still rearranging deckchairs. As energy disaster looms, we have to stop rearranging deckchairs and do something effective, something that will actually alter our course dramatically, in time to make the crucial difference. Fortunately, what we have to do to is staring us in the face. We have to forget about oil and gas. Our obsessive concern about the next barrel of oil, the next cubic metre of gas, is blinding us to the real issue and the real opportunity right in front of us.

Suppose, despite all appearances to the contrary, that governments faced with impending disaster actually decide to change course - to do something effective about energy. What should they do? They should start by cleaning up the language. Stop calling oil, gas and electricity all indiscriminately 'energy', as if they were all interchangeable. They're not - not without changing the technology that uses them. You can't run your ordinary car on electricity, or your computer on gas. If risky supplies of fuel or electricity mean you have to change the technology, why not try to get it right this time?

Forget fuel

Keep the lights on Cover
Keep the lights on Cover
Forget fossil fuel. Forget fuel in general. Fuel is not the problem - not for 'energy security', nor for climate change. The problem is not fuel. It is how we use it, and what we use it in. The problem is buildings, lighting, motors, heaters, chillers, electronics; the problem is physical assets. These physical assets deliver the services we want. No one wants 'energy'. We want comfort, illumination, cooked food, motive power, mobility, refrigeration, information, entertainment and so on. We get them from buildings and other technologies, the vast energy service infrastructure of modern industrial society. This energy service infrastructure may in turn require fuel or electricity to function. The better the infrastructure the less fuel or electricity it needs to deliver the service we want; but we keep getting this wrong. So do governments.

Energy security means reliable services, not just fuel and electricity. As the title of my new book says, it means keeping the lights on. The best way to minimize vulnerability to price rises or power cuts is to minimize dependence on fuel and electricity, by upgrading the infrastructure. Government can take the lead.

A government such as that of the UK has tens of thousands of buildings all over the country that are its own responsibility - everything from offices to prisons. Suppose it decides to upgrade all these buildings - to ensure they are solidly built and adequately insulated, with high-performance lighting, heating, ventilation, and electronics, and indeed with on-site generation and cogeneration of their own heat and power. Such an undertaking would entail major pump-priming contracts to energy-service companies. It would boost skilled employment all over the country. It would cut the unit costs of the necessary technologies, by tooling up for expanded use. It would reduce the vulnerability and improve the reliability of all the energy services provided. It would demonstrate dramatically the vast potential for improvement. It would be a spectacular international public-relations coup. What's more, it would save taxpayers money.

Look at Woking

The example of Woking in the UK is already world-famous, showing what imaginative leadership can do. Its decentralized local energy system, with cogeneration and microgeneration, solar panels, fuel cells, private electric wires, high-performance homes and other buildings, has long since paid for itself, financing yet further innovation. Just google 'woking surrey sustainable energy'. You'll find all the inspiration you need to get you started.

The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, recruited Allan Jones from Woking to head the London Climate Change Agency, with plans to make London the first sustainable megacity. But other megacities are also in the hunt, all over the world. Their focus is not on oil and gas. It is on infrastructure; and so it should be.

All together now - repeat after me:

Climate is about energy.

Energy is about infrastructure - not commodities, infrastructure.

Therefore climate is about infrastructure. QED.

Grab the helm and let's change course. Now.

© Walt Patterson 2007

(See also Walt Patterson interview for China Dialogue

Walt Patterson is associate fellow in the Energy, Environment and Development Programme at Chatham House, London. His latest book, Keeping The Lights On: Towards Sustainable Electricity has just been published by Chatham House and Earthscan - see tinyurl.com/22y7z4 or tinyurl.com/2xrujs. Walt Patterson On Energy, www.waltpatterson.org, is an archive of free books and other writing over more than 35 years.

To hear a BBC Radio 4 interview with Walt Patterson about his book click here. See also Walt Patterson interview for China Dialogue here).