x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The misleading panacea that is 'mono-energyism'

Our energy supply is beset by serious problems. It is only natural to seek a magic bullet, a single energy source that can solve all problems. This is the beguiling concept of mono-energyism.

Human beings long for simple solutions. Our energy supply is beset by serious problems: high prices, geopolitical conflicts, public opposition, environmental degradation and above all, climate change. It is only natural to seek a magic bullet, a single energy source that can solve all problems. This is the beguiling concept of mono-energyism. For the phrase itself, I'm indebted to David Scott, of Abu Dhabi's Executive Affairs Authority. The idea is that some energy technology is the best, the only one that should dominate the future. Therefore it deserves targeted support and incentives; its competitors should be controlled and discouraged.

The problem is that there is no agreement on which form of energy this is. In arguing for their own favoured solution, supporters muddy the waters by attacking competing sources. Given the uncertainties in future technology and costs, it is already hard enough for specialists to make rational decisions. When the general public is called on to make decisions on the site of a new wind farm or nuclear plant, or on subsidies for "green" energy, they are faced with a bewildering blizzard of information and misinformation.

Fossil fuels dominate today's economy; 85 per cent of our energy comes from oil, gas and coal. Recent discoveries and new technologies ensure that resources are still plentiful. Oil prices are down from record highs and the price of gas has slumped. Fossil fuels are familiar, convenient and make use of a vast existing infrastructure. Yet they are the first to come under attack. Opponents point, quite rightly, to their emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. They blame oil for blighting countries with the "resource curse" of economic stagnation and political instability. The past decade of high prices, blighted by bad news about exporters such as Iraq, Iran and Venezuela, makes oil seem an unreliable fuel.

The recent gas boom in the US is coming under threat as campaigners including Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, attack the industry practice of fracturing gas-bearing rocks, alleging a risk of water contamination. And electricity generation fired by coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, is increasingly facing direct action to shut it down. This disillusionment with fossil fuels makes renewables the current favourites: perceived as clean and secure, they have grown at double-digit rates in recent years. As Greenpeace says of the UK: "This windswept island nation has enormous wind, wave and tidal power: more than enough to meet all of our energy needs many times over."

Wind power is increasingly competitive in good locations; solar power has a promising role in sunny Middle Eastern climes. But the leading energy expert Professor David Mackay of Cambridge University argues, relying on careful calculations, that practically accessible, local renewable energy is insufficient to power a major economy such as the UK's. The oil giant Shell announced in March last year that it would no longer invest in most renewable technologies because they were not commercially viable.

Jesse Ausebel from Rockefeller University in New York says that "renewables may be renewable but they are not green", because of the large land area and quantities of steel, concrete and water required by wind farms, solar panels and biofuel crops. "If we want to minimise new structures and the rape of nature, nuclear energy is the best option," he says. Nuclear is, of course, a green heresy. In 2004, Bishop Hugh Montefiore, a member of the board of Friends of the Earth, was forced to leave the environmental organisation over his support for nuclear power. His former colleagues point to the dangers of terrorism, toxic waste and proliferation by "rogue states". Others argue that nuclear power is costly and slow to build.

Perhaps we could use less energy? But rapid growth in emerging economies ensures demand growth, even if strong pressure for efficiency could reduce the rate. The economists Leonard Brookes and Daniel Khazzoom argue that, paradoxically, greater energy efficiency encourages economic growth, ultimately increasing consumption. The conclusion seems to be that all energy options are bad. That is, of course, not very helpful. The recent Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi pointed to a different way. Of course, the primary focus was on renewables such as biofuels, and solar and wind power. Yet carbon capture and storage, preventing greenhouse emissions from fossil fuels, was also in evidence. Masdar unveiled plans for a more efficient "smart" electricity grid. There were important oil and gas announcements from Norway's Statoil, and from Turkey.

Only a month before, we had seen the landmark award of the UAE's first nuclear deal to South Korea. And recent news already hints at new technologies for the far future: a breakthrough in fusion power research, plans for space-based solar satellites, and ExxonMobil's biofuels made from algae. In fact, all energy sources have advantages and disadvantages. Costs and environmental impact are often very dependent on local circumstances. We have to transform our economy rapidly to deal with climate change, yet energy infrastructure is very long-lived.

The enterprise of building a sustainable society is not helped by fruitless debates about the perfect source of power, or by dragging every new project through interminable political and legal challenges. When asked which energy source is best, the answer is: "all of them". Robin Mills is an energy economist based in Dubai, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis (Praeger, 2008)