You come home and you flip a switch – the light comes on. The reason this happens is because somewhere, many kilometers away, steam is turning a turbine and generating electricity, which is then fed into a grid, which transports the energy to your home. This is the centralized energy-production system which has existed for as long as we can remember. This process for electricity-production is common to all states. Whether you live in the USA, France, or China, that is how everyone receives their electric power. Then, everyone receives a bill to pay for the amount of electricity they have used for a specific time period. Could it be any other way?
Crises Bring Change
Traditionally, the energy sector has been a conservative one. Not much has changed in the past 60 years in the way that citizens obtain energy and states ensure that there is supply.There is a strict conservatism in the way energy is produced: from power generation in some far-off place, transportation via power lines or underground pipes and final consumption. No citizen really knows (or cares) where the power which they use comes from. It might be from a coal or gas-fired power plant, a hydro-electric facility or from a nuclear power plant. However, it is at times of crisis that people begin to realize the problems which characterize the current situation.
The crisis in Japan, where the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is the focus of attention, has brought into question the safety of atomic energy. Nuclear power, once seen as the key to self-sufficiency and a secure, constant supplier of cheap energy is placed on the witness stand and questioned. In Europe, a series of stress tests will be conducted by the end of the year to determine whether the Continent’s nuclear plants are safe or if they are disasters-in-the-making. As a result, many will undoubtedly have to be decommissioned.
The phasing out of nuclear power would be a victory for environmentalists. Organizations such as Greenpeace have been campaigning against atomic energy since the 1970’s. However, like any other consumer, they do not know exactly where the power comes from. Luckily, there are alternatives to nuclear energy and Europe has the potential to come out of this crisis unharmed. Choices will have to be made, and a path will have to be taken. The problem is that there are two paths available, and both lead through a mine-field.
Navigate the High Seas
If nuclear power is to be phased out from the European energy production system, the issue of energy security will have to be addressed. Until now, policy-makers had been counting on atomic energy to bring them a measure of self-sufficiency and security of supply. Since the overall dependency on fuel imports of the European Union’s 27 member states was 53% in 2008 (the latest available statistics), this was already an issue before the onset of the nuclear crisis. Therefore, two paths have to be examined – the one of regress, and the one of progress.
Regress to the 19th Century
During the industrial revolution, entrepreneurs realized that coal and oil can be used for generating power. When Thomas Edison invented the light-bulb, this revolutionized every-day life. Today, we still use coal, oil, and natural gas to generate electricity both to power light-bulbs and for industrial production. Since Europe has very few reserves of oil and gas, it imports it from North Africa, the Middle East, and Russia. This causes a dependence on others to keep the wheels turning and the economy running. This is the reason why during the financial crisis of 2009 the price of oil was one of the major issues on the agenda.
In the process of phasing out nuclear power, this first path is the one that will lead us to use more oil and gas for power generation – a regression to a 19th Century-style production system. A rise in demand will cause a rise in imports. Simple economics would tell you that high demand and low supply cause a rise in prices. Suddenly, you might have to think very hard before you flip the switch to turn on that light bulb – you might not be able to pay your energy bill. The only beneficiary of such as system would be the autocrats in oil-rich countries, like Colonel Gaddafi in Libya.
Furthermore, the shut down of nuclear power would be a victory for environmentalists, but an increase in the use of oil and gas would be a defeat. These highly-polluting fuels also cause environmental damage, such as air pollution. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 also brought everyone’s attention to the fact that the method to obtain oil can cause large-scale environmental disasters.
21st Century – An Energy Odyssey
Before the current nuclear crisis set in, the main question in the EU was how to decrease its dependence on imports of fuels. The initiation of the 20-20-20 strategy (20% reduction in greenhouse-gasses, 20% increase in energy efficiency and 20% production from renewable sources, all before 2020) was seen as the first step in achieving this goal. Now, more will have to be done.
The second path available might sound like a science-fiction novel. Imagine flying over a city and all you can see is roof-top solar panels. Fly over the Toyota Parts Center Europe in Belgium and you will no longer need your imagination. Now imagine fields of wind-turbine generators. Drive on the Vienna-Budapest highway and you might think you are dreaming. We are on the road to replace oil, gas, and nuclear by renewable energy technology.
The benefit of renewable energy technology is that it uses natural resources – the Sun, wind, tides or the Earth’s underground warmth. It means that nothing has to be imported, since these assets are available in plenty
everywhere.The fact that we are already building large-scale installations shows that this path is economically feasible. It is also environmentally safe since they produce no pollution.
If Europe steps-up its investment in renewable technology instead of building more pipelines, the regression to the 19th Century can be avoided, and a new revolution can occur – the energy revolution of the 21st Century.
Clash of the Titans
What the energy system’s inherent conservatism has brought us to believe is that individuals have no role in energy production. Consumers consume, and producers – produce. However, there is an alternative which can cause the way economists look at the energy sector.
In the energy revolution of the 21st Century, anyone can participate. It is not only up to large companies to place solar panels on their rooftops, nor is it up to governments to construct wind-generator farms. The beauty of renewable energy is that everyone can participate. Two ideas portray this sublime potentiality.
The first idea is related to hot water. Just like turning a switch for the lights to come on, when you open your tap, hot water comes out. Since water is not naturally hot in most places, there is an energy cycle behind the warm liquid coming out of the shower, and it also includes fossil-fuel burning and paying a bill. However, everyone can actually produce their own hot water – rooftop solar powered boilers (see picture) are commonplace in countries like Israel.
The benefits are that you do not have to pay a large company every time you take a shower, and they are not harmful to the environment. The fact that these installations cost approximately US$350 a piece makes it even more appealing.
The second idea is related to efficiency. Recently, the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov was asked “how many light bulbs do we have to change in order to shut down the nuclear power plant?” In response, a study was commissioned, which determined that if €4 billion was invested to make buildings more efficient (through insulation or more efficient lighting), approximately 1600 MWh of power for domestic consumption could be saved. This is the amount of energy that 1.5 nuclear reactors produce. It seems that efficiency can realistically lead to the closing down of a nuclear power plant.
The beauty of these ideas stems from the fact that every individual can participate. By making your house energy efficient, placing solar pv panels on your rooftop or other small-scale renewable energy projects, you can participate in energy production as well as consumption. Large residential buildings, as well as individual houses, have always had little potential for energy production. With the potential of installing solar panels or even small wind turbines on rooftops, renewable energy technology is revolutionizing the sector. Prof. Arthuros Zevros, President of the European Renewable Energy Council, imagines a transformation where “all new buildings should produce as much energy as they consume.” This is surely not a dream, but a realistic goal. The technology exists and is already in use.
De-centralizing the system of energy production can achieve a lot on the path to self-sufficiency and security in the post-nuclear age. It can benefit the state as well as the individual consumer. What is needed is the will to change, which is often found in plenty at time of crisis.