The perfect energy source – that is cheap, safe, abundant, reliable, environmentally friendly and producible on any scale – doesn’t exist.[i] When it comes to energy, we can’t avoid making judgment calls. Energy is policy. It is a choice.
Do we want the most stable, reliable electricity production possible? A government-sponsored nuclear industry, like France’s, makes sense.
Or is cheapest best? This is most relevant to developing economies. Coal is abundant, transportable and very cheap. And very polluting. China is the world’s biggest consumer of coal, but it still plays a huge role in countries like Germany, Poland and the US.
Or do we want to reverse climate change? If so, our society needs revolutionary rethinking. Cars, freight and planes would have to all but disappear.
Sunshine and wind are abundant in many countries and not polluting in themselves (the production of parts, installation and noise pollution aside). But who will bear cost of realising an entirely new smart electricity grid? What power generation will be used as back-up on the days the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine?
This blog is intentionally bipartisan. I am interested in solutions, not ideology. Developing solutions that address climate change and pollution, while also supporting development and fairness, and allowing for profitability. This requires both creative thinking and diverse inputs. We can benefit from the efficiency and dynamism markets encourage without rejecting the crucial role governments can and do play – and should, since safety is at stake.
Misunderstanding of energy issues is pervasive – exacerbated by misleading articles in the media. And our politicians struggle to promote their own energy policies, as they themselves lack clarity about the issues.
A lot of activists with worthy motivations – preventing dangerous climate change from engulfing the planet or radiation from poisoning another generation of young Japanese – make hasty suggestions about how to deal with the problems that worry them.
This isn’t surprising as energy issues are complex. They don’t conform to classic economic models. Each sector seems to have its own strange dynamic. Gas is regional. It is transported by pipelines and blighted by geopolitical manoeuvring. And it has yet to make strong in-roads into the transport fuel market to compete with petrol. It is still mainly being used by industry and for heating.
Oil is traded a hundred times more in paper than in physical barrels. This liquidity stems both from its being easy to transport as well as from strong competition. Yet, fundamental constraints affect the oil market too. The stuff of value is the refined petroleum product obtained from processing crudes. And the refineries that do this are both very expensive and inflexible, and can only be used to refine a particular crude oil.
Oil’s price level directly affects inflation and the cost of living in most of the countries that consume it. And, in the big producing countries, it often forms the backbone of their governments’ budgets, and can dramatically increase or decrease income levels.
Electricity may not be the biggest contributor to climate change, but the debate around renewable energy, particularly solar and wind power, takes centre-stage here. Electricity markets reflect their infrastructural base as electricity can’t be stored it must be consumed immediately after it is created.
The make-up of electricity systems varies greatly according to country – and within nations. For example, New Zealand’s predominantly renewable electricity mix is based on geothermal and hydropower. This is only possible because of the country’s local geographic and climatic conditions.
The often forgotten market is dirty, but abundant coal.
Coal is usually local. It is also the fuel that would suffer most if a price for carbon was integrated in its valuation. A little appreciated fact is that shifting 1% of global coal usage to natural gas would be the equivalent of increasing current renewable energy production by 11%.[ii]
A good understanding of the dynamics of the energy industry and markets is necessary if we are to be serious about addressing the global problems we face; whether these are fair consumer prices, climate change, energy poverty and access, economic and industrial growth, energy supply security or global financial stability. I’m very serious about these – although I don’t believe the solutions are easy or obvious. But we mustn’t be dismayed or dissuaded by the complexity of problems that face us. We will discuss them here.
[i] Although a cheekier analyst might suggest that energy efficiency – not wasting energy – is the cheapest fuel we have.
[ii] Data from BP Energy 2035 Energy Forecast, C.Ruhl, January 2014