“This is one of the great challenges of our time, and I’d like to see students engaging in this”

The Gryphon sat down with Professor William Gale, Director of the Centre for Integrated Energy research, to discuss the potential of a fossil free future.

As our fossil based energy supplies dwindle and new alternatives begin to emerge amidst the backdrop of pressing climate change, Professor Gale tells us about our options:

Whatever do you think is going to be the most effective form of energy we can use in the face of climate change?

I don’t think there’s any one answer to this. We have to distinguish between energy supply and energy demand.

Focusing on energy supply, renewables are, of course, what we hope will have an important part to play. This is controversial, but I do think there is a role for nuclear energy in the mix, although not everybody agrees with me on the subject. There are other key technologies like energy storage, which you can use for renewables like wind and solar, and we will sooner or later succeed in getting rid of fossil fuels, but that will be a gradual process.

It looks like we’ll go through a stage of another dash to gas. Now natural gas is not a low carbon fuel, but it’s cleaner than coal. The coal fire power stations are sooner or later going to be a thing of the past. What you may see is fossil fuels combined with carbon capture and storage as a transitional technology, so you try and take a conventional route and then make this more sustainable. So I think the answer is a mixture, I don’t think there’s any single magic bullet.

On the other side is energy demand. Energy is part of this, but behaviour is also very important; its being conscious of the energy one’s using and making choices. It’s really about working with people to help them use energy in a responsible fashion.

If you want to know about energy we talk about the ‘trilema’. Because its like a dilemma, but with three: you want energy to be sustainable; secure; and available to all – in other words, sufficiently affordable so you don’t create energy poverty, for example. The challenge is, it’s hard enough doing two of those, and if you try to address two then you come back to the ‘trilema’.

So do you think the demand for energy will mean that it’s more difficult for us to start moving towards other forms?

It doesn’t mean that it’s more difficult to move to other forms of supply, it just means that, although there is an interaction between supply and demand, we just need every country in the world to use energy a little more carefully. The question then is how to do that in a way that is compatible in a democracy. This isn’t something I think can be imposed on people; it’s a case of finding ways of enhancing living in a way that people are comfortable with. There’s been a lot of discussion about ‘nudge’; a nudging of behaviour rather than using a big stick. But there are some pressing issues in addition to the issue of climate change; we produced very big incentives for people to use diesel cars for example and that’s not actually that great.

What is your opinion on fracking?

Well the issue is that natural gas is not a low carbon fuel. And if you’re going to use natural gas you have to accept that it’s not a low carbon fuel; it’s a cleaner fuel than coal, but its not a low carbon fuel. The arguments around fracking centre on, one, the local impact and two, the climate impact of use of the fuel. It comes back to that ‘trilema’ again; if you start producing more fuel at home that’s more secure, will the fuel be affordable? And sustainability? Well, its not one of the most sustainable fuels in the world, let’s put it that way.

In the US it has made fuel cheap, but it’s not so likely we can make energy cheap here. If you make energy unaffordable you price people out of energy, however, if energy is too cheap then there’s no incentive to use it wisely. It’s a balancing act.

Do you think as students we need we need to become more radical in saving energy?

Well I think as students, you need to become informed and engaged with what’s going on in difficult areas. What I would like to see is a student body of people who are more engaged in passionate but civilised debate. The debate has often been passionate, it hasn’t always been civilised. Perhaps its not something that involves enough of the student body. There are some students who are deeply passionate about energy, we have a building full of them here. This is one of the great challenges of our time, and I’d like to see students engaging in this and forming their own viewpoints but based on evidence.

Looking historically, there is surely hope that change can be achieved. When the world came together over the ozone layer, that was a great feat.

I think it was. If we can establish a sense that something is in everybody’s interest, (something we haven’t yet succeeded in, although I think everybody is starting to get better) then we can achieve amazing things.

I think that’s why we need to reach a common ground among people who currently see the world in a very different way. There are a lot of things we can do that everyone see’s as a good thing. Nobody likes spending money on energy. Promoting a more efficient source of energy is in everyone’s interest, so I think there’s scope for creating an agreement on the demand side. Why not have more energy efficient homes? Everybody likes saving money and its good for the planet.

Within the EU there were a lot of agreement deals on energy. How is that now looking post-Brexit?

I don’t know, and neither does anyone else until the government comes out with a policy statement. It could be that we’ll continue to cooperate or it could be that we go off and forge our own path.

I know that when Theresa May came into power she closed down the environment department.

Yes, it’s now the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. We had some discussion about this, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It could be the kind of thing that promotes collaboration and causes people to look for synergies between what’s good for the economy and what’s good for the environment. But we’ll have to wait and see. It’s not necessarily that the government doesn’t care for the environment but that they have a different way of addressing the problem.

Oisín Teevan

[Image courtesy of RedFish]

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