Can we keep the lights on?

Can we, as a nation, keep the lights on, with these intermittent wind turbines? Can we keep the lights on, without nuclear power stations or coal burning power stations? Can we keep the lights on, with all these climate change targets? You often hear journalists and politicians ask these questions when discussing energy. The question indicates the importance of energy security, being able to flick a switch and know that the lights will come on, every time. However, they are asking the wrong question. Energy security is not about keeping the lights on.

The question “can we keep the lights on” implies that most of us are concerned mostly about electricity energy. If you give a person a choice about being kept warm and having hot water and having to suffer from no or little light when darkness falls or being kept in light at night most would opt for warmth in winter and possibly in summer too. You can die of cold, but not, as far as I am aware, of darkness at night.

If I were to limit the question to encompass solely electrical energy to the exclusion of heat energy and ask “can we, as a nation, keep the lights on” or use its alternative “will the lights go out” I would still be asking the wrong question. The question would have been just about right in 1970 when lighting account for more energy consumption followed by cooking in UK households but today consumer electronics and computing at home account for nearly double the electricity inUKhouseholds that lighting uses.

In the past ten years electrical consumption in home computing has more than doubled, which reflects not only the increase in the number of home computers in use, but also the fact that in ten years computers have become far more energy efficient.

Since 1970, however the figures (see http://www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/11/stats/energy/energy-efficiency/1918-statistical-release-home-insulation-0611.pdf ) have shown that household electricity consumption of consumer electronics has risen by 599%, equivalent to a rise from 271 tonnes of oil equivalent to a massive 1787 tonnes of oil equivalent.

We should not ask whether our policy an keep the lights on but whether our energy policy will keep those computers, televisions, hi-fi units, games consoles and the like keeping us entertained.

The difference in climate change terms and in terms of the environment that our descendants will enjoy is significant. Nero might have played the fiddle while Rome burned, but we are playing our televisions and games machines and making the planet warm up, as oblivious and as careless of our actions as Nero.

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