Saturday, March 23, 2013

Pipeline failure highlights energy insecurity in UK

The closure of a cross-channel natural gas pipeline has highlighted the terrific insecurity of the UK's energy supplies since North Sea gas began to dwindle. The UK is increasingly at the mercy of continental suppliers, who themselves sit at the end of a interlinked chain-of-effect that begins in Russia, where kleptocrats and authoritarians run the energy business, and are perfectly willing to hold the hapless Europeans hostage for energy supplies.

You'd have to read between the lines and be as steeped in (some would say besotted by) industrial history as I am to get the full meaning of this seemingly small event, but this is a pretty pass for a country that was an net energy exporter until just a few years ago. The proud history of domestic UK energy is also the history of the Industrial Revolution, and goes back to the first days of steam power in the coal mines of the north and west of the country. The first combustion engines were designed primarily to pump water out of these mines so we could get at the coal. From these beginnings we got the industrial system here in New England -- built largely with British capital and know-how. Without those New England mills, and some bloody-minded northern agitators, America might still be a slave-holding society. Without the extension of Yankee industry into the midwest, building plant like the famous Willow Run B24 line, Germany might still be in charge of Europe.

More recently, the North Sea, run from Aberdeen, Tyneside and Hull, was the birthplace of the offshore energy industry generally, and lessons learned on the rigs were put to work building the great offshore wind farms now under construction.

There seems a small salvation for our former and perhaps future western industrial might. One source of domestic energy that has stepped into the breach since the closure of the gas pipeline is that UK wind. It's windy there right now. With over five thousand turbines, including a growing number of (relatively) less intermittent offshore plants, the UK's wind energy system is able to cover some for the temporary slowing of gas supplies, at least that part of them that was producing electricity.

This is one of the great things about wind energy -- it comes in the winter, at least in the north Atlantic region, which is when we need the energy most. We very badly need to build more of it, if we are to cherish our freedom and avoid the worst of climate change.

This is particularly true in Britain. The British Isles and Eire comprise a long archipelago oriented north-south, beginning at a latitude well above Maine and continuing to just a few degrees shy of the Arctic circle. The islands get lashed by North Atlantic weather systems from autumn to spring equinox, and much of the winter is gloomy and stormy. Solar power doesn't work very well there in winter. When I lived in the north of Scotland, there were days when it wouldn't really get light at all in December, if the weather was at all cloudy.

Here in the US, although we're further south and so have more scope for solar power, these trade-offs still exist, but you wouldn't know it from the low intellectual quality of the energy debate so far.

How many of Maine's anti-wind activists are pro-fracking?

How many of Maine's anti-fracking campaigners are pro-wind?

Or are they all just pro-NIMBY?

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