Saturday 21 January 2012

Local Energy, for the World

When I was about ten, we lived in Saudi Arabia for a year, where my parents taught in a school in the capital, Riyadh.  One day we took a trip out into the desert; and there in the middle of the stark white and yellow sand dunes that marched in all directions to the horizon, stood an oasis, exactly like those you see in comic books and old films about the French Foreign Legion.  An oasis of cool green water, surrounded by scrubby grass and great palms, groaning under the weight of dates.  Nearby stood a village, and it was this village that really caught my attention; every available space was covered in solar panels.  I was really impressed, even as a child, by the thought that this village could be entirely self-sufficient in its electricity needs; that a country unbelievably rich in oil, was, in this village at least, fore-sighted enough not to use oil-powered generators, but to invest in technology that could harvest the sunlight that is freely available in large quantities, and effectively forever.

I listened to a debate on the radio recently where one of the speakers said that in order to feed the world, we must go down the route of genetically modified crops; he was a passionate advocate and cited the moral argument that, given the numbers of starving people and the technology at our disposal, the choice was obvious.  The counter-argument, shorter, more succinct, was that the world already produces as much food as we need,  but not as much as we want.  Feeding the world with a western-style, meat-and-dairy-rich, daily 3000 calorie plus, diet would require radical change in our agricultural methods.  Feeding the world more equitably could already happen; the change would have to be in our minds and habits rather than in the job of our farmers.

It's a concept that's echoed in George Monbiot's book Heat - How Can We Stop The Planet Burning.  We could, with available technology, and enough will, provide all the power that we currently need, but pretty much not all that we want.  Given the amount of energy we waste every day in the UK, and across the world, arguably we wouldn't even have to increase production that significantly to achieve energy equity across the globe.

And this is where I started thinking about the problem.  As part of our New Year Aspirations theme week, I talked about local energy generation, using solar or wind power to support a community-led energy collective.  I think this could be a real opportunity to both generate power sustainably and from renewable sources, but also to wrest some control back from the utility companies that control how much we spend on our gas and electricity.

But I also started to think about the problem from a more global perspective.  Given that climate change knows no political and national boundaries, what could be a global solution?  If we as a global community are sufficiently concerned about climate change, would it make sense to invest heavily in, for example, solar technology, right across the Middle East, across North Africa to the west, and across the central Asian countries to the east?  They get the most sunshine, so that would make sense, wouldn't it?  I'm not talking about the complex carbon trading initiatives that offset holiday flights against energy efficient cooking stoves in sub-saharan Africa.  I'm talking about genuine, cooperatively owned, community-owned solutions, harvesting the plentiful sunshine and wind resources for the benefit of the communities that live in those regions.  It could provide energy, but also training, jobs, prosperity, autonomy.

Am I just being simplistic, or is the only real challenge to that concept in our own minds?

Even on a (grey and wet) day like today, installing panels in Norfolk is still an effective option.  And what else do we have?  We have a lot of wind (I'm told that the winds from Siberia heading west cover flat country all the way across Europe until they hit the first high ground here in Norwich - sometimes I can really believe that!).  We have the turbines at Scroby Sands, and scattered across the county, plus the beautiful old windmills dotted around the place, some of them still working, many, I'm sure, just ready to be refitted to modern-day usage.  In the same way that Iceland uses its locally available geothermal energy, maybe we should be pushing for a new localism in energy production - local, but cooperative, while supporting other countries, so called developing countries, in building their own local energy, based on what is most suitable for their own locality.

I'm not saying that this will solve all our problems - solutions often come with their own complexities, their own new problems.  But as part of a mix - localised, community-based energy production, side by side with radical and focussed energy waste reduction and elimination - this could be a real opportunity to create energy sustainability and equity.  It just needs to will to make it happen.

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