If only months ago energy security was a vague and seemingly irrelevant issue to most ordinary people, the public have had a rude awakening in recent days – as last week’s National Grid proposal to limit to potentially limit corporate electricity usage at scheduled times was met with apocalyptic visions of a country plunged into darkness and imminent blackout alerts across the popular press.
But sensationalism aside, the problem is very real and has been bubbling away for some time. Most recently, the energy regulator, Ofgem, has identified a shrinking gap between supply and demand which is predicted to get even worse by 2015 as old power stations are closed – and there is a pressing need for effective solutions. Yet while public concern over energy prices has grown actually securing the supply has not been seen as a priority issue.
Research done by the Glasgow University Media Group and Chatham House last year showed that most people had no idea what energy security meant, and even when it was explained to them, didn’t perceive it as a direct or relevant threat. This was until it was suggested that perhaps, in extreme circumstances, individuals might have their own energy use curbed – the horror of all of those unsent texts and missing Facebook posts if phone charging was interrupted appears to have brought the crisis home.
The background to this is a global environment in which rising energy prices, growing worldwide demand and concerns over falling conventional reserves have forced energy security onto the media and political agendas. In the UK press, the internal squabbling over the details of the Energy Bill made headlines while in the US presidential election, the country’s energy future took a prominent role in the final days of campaigning.
The cost of energy, of course, makes tabloid front pages – particularly in an era of austerity in which the cost of everything must be justified. In spite of all of this, the term “energy security” itself, and the nature of the problem, has not been well defined or discussed in explicit terms – and has never really made its way into the popular lexicon.
That energy security has historically suffered from being debated alongside - and usually subordinated to – climate change might offer one possible explanation. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) was established in October of 2008 to formally bring together energy and climate change mitigation policy. As a by-product of the wider discussion of energy futures, it tended to be subsumed under the banner of climate-related issues.
More recently however – and in the context of a global media talking a lot less about climate change – potential solutions to problems with energy security are being talked about alone. In 2008 - not only the year DECC was established but also the year the Climate Change Act was passed - there was a strong sense of energy and climate change being a dual enterprise. Fears over energy security and the need to combat climate change had converging agendas in the shape of the development of renewable energies and nuclear power and the promotion of energy efficiency.
But global events have changed all that – as the successful extraction of shale gas in the US has redirected discussions towards the country’s looming energy independence. During the 2012 presidential debates, both candidates stressed a future strategy dependent on both traditional resources such as gas and oil as well as renewable energies. Climate change was not mentioned. And although Obama appears to be turning his attention to it now, there is no suggestion that extraction of fossil fuels is going to end any time soon. Rather the opposite appears likely, with their increased extraction via unconventional methods - even if the carbon footprint for shale gas is proven to be greater than that for conventional gas or oil. The ardour with which last week’s report from the British Geological Survey suggesting much larger than predicted deposits of shale gas was met by members of the government, including the Chancellor, leave us in no doubt of the route the UK will attempt to take.
Renewables suffer from increasingly politicised and often confusing media coverage and political debate, and nuclear for a variety of reasons remains relatively unpopular. In this context, the unconventional extraction of natural gas or fracking – an unknown term to most people until very recently - is likely to be seen as an attractive option – especially in the face of the potentially serious difficulties with energy security that the British public is now waking up to. Just don’t mention climate change.