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The quagmire of energy

Technology has driven man’s progress, not the abilityto burn fossil fuels.

I really struggle to understand how people see infrastructure as anything other than investment. In my mind the fabric of the nation is made up from the myriad individual and corporate decisions to build ‘stuff’; decisions made by our forebears to deal with some particular pressing problem of their time.

Without their insatiable desire to sort out their problems we would be limited to scratching out our lives in a small circle of land prescribed by how far we could walk for food and water.

But I am delighted to be living in a time when these are not the limiting factors of my life. As a result of their decisions I benefit. Our lives are richer because these people invested.

So we drive roads laid out in many places by Telford, or hurtle westwards in smooth curves on tracks following Brunel’s plans, thoughtlessly use the water and sewage systems by Bazalgette and blithely flick switches and expect the miracles of technology to hum into life using the grid pioneered by Tom Johnstone and others.

The list is endless and I expect we all have our particular idols. However, the point is that without these visionaries much of what we take for granted would not be here.

But we also find new unintended ways of using our investments. The telegraph morphed into the phone network to carry voice, and then morphed into the internet and is again carrying data; but data in volumes and complexity unimaginable when the first wires were strung from poles alongside railways. Would we have an internet without the telegraph? Who knows?

The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone. It ended because we decided to use a better technology.

So what infrastructure will we build today that our descendants will cherish? I believe the Olympic Legacy will be both physical but more importantly procedural.

The long overdue awakening of our ability to achieve the impossible when faced with clear targets, good public engagement and remarkable leadership was inspirational. But what next? In what should we invest this rediscovered confidence?

I would argue it must be our energy system. Energy is fundamental to our lives that it is unthinkable without it. Get that wrong and it is game over.

The opportunity now in front of us is to reconfigure the old mine it and burn it grid into something that ‘harvests’ the only input to the planet: sunlight.

We presently run 80% of the world by annually burning 16 cubic kilometres of fossilised prehistoric swamp sludge. Since we are not making any more swamps we are consuming a finite resource.

The civilisation game will end messily if we don’t get off this carbon addiction and out of the Carbon Age and learn to live within our solar income.

Someone once pointed out that the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone. It ended because we decided to use a better technology. We don’t have to wait until we have burnt the last cup of oil to choose to become sustainable.

That is the infrastructure choice I think we should make today.

  • Neil Kermode is managing director of the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC)

Readers' comments (1)

  • David Williams

    Beautifully expressed. How we make it happen? (I ask that question in all seriousness.)

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