Running out of fossil fuels is a very real danger, so it’s time to start looking to other sources of energy. Dr George Davis, environmentalist and active user of renewable energy, gives us a breakdown of what all the green stuff means.
A discussion of renewable energy is not a simple one. It is full of ambiguity, contradictions, history, and individual perspectives. I am a city dweller; I love my morning coffee and newspaper, preferably at a pavement café if the solar energy is sufficient, and the wind energy mild enough to make it a comfortable experience. I might even page through my well-thumbed copy of E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful (go and find it if you don’t know it!) for a bit of perspective on the craziness of modern city life. The barista’s high-energy espresso machine is only a small part of the total energy that I will need to get through my day. There is still the diesel-fuelled bus that will take me to my first meeting, and then there’s the tube train, a complex and energy dependent system of electric networks, lighting, ventilation pumps and escalators, that will carry me to my second. Along the way, I will need to confront my perennial anxiety about the number of baked bricks in London. The train will rattle rocket-like down soot-sodden, brick-lined tunnels; I will walk past row upon row of Victorian terraced houses trying to calculate how many of these red prisms were needed to house the average family. Where did all the clay come from? How much energy was used to dig it up? How were all those bricks fired? How many courses could a bricklayer lay in the course of a day? How would it have been to walk down foggy streets lit by gaslight as horse-drawn carriages rattled by over the cobbled surfaces? How much energy did it take to build this city, and how much does it take to keep it operational?
Living in a big city like London often leave one pondering the amount of energy that goes into modern life – how it’s used and where it comes from. It’s a complex equation, but one source, the US Energy Information Administration reports that primary energy consumption – meaning it was obtained directly from natural sources – in the UK in 2011 was 88 per cent from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum), and 12 per cent from renewables. This means that the bulk of the energy that we use to light our homes, cook our meals, maintain our industries, travel in cars, buses or trains – and worst of all aeroplanes – comes from beneath the surface of our earth, where organic material of ancient forests and swamps was laid down millions of years ago to form coal beds and oil fields. Burn it, and it turns into very useful energy, but this process also produces an inconvenient by-product: carbon dioxide, which we now know to be a greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change. There are very good reasons to want to move away from our dependence on sources like these, but the big economies that underpin our modern urban lifestyles, and my morning coffee in particular, rely heavily on the bulk of the energy generated.