Energy

Peak oil and gas require our energy intensive way of life to change. This means using much less energy and being increasingly innovative in how we create it. But the vision of a future without fossil fuels and nuclear can be a happy one: less cars and trucks on our streets and more bicycles; better insulated homes; less air-polluting power stations and more carbon neutral buildings; community owned renewables; and greater use of bioenergy and waste. These are just some of the solutions we can look to as we transition to a post-carbon economy.

The problem

According to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) the peak of oil discovery was passed in the 1960s, and the world started using more than was found in new fields in 1981. The gap between discovery and production has widened since. Many countries have already passed their peak, suggesting that the world peak of production is now imminent.

More than 70% of the total energy consumed in the UK comes from oil, gas and solid fuels such as coal, while renewables account for just 5% of the UK’s energy mix. Assuming that we choose not to pursue nuclear for ecological and safety reasons; there will be a huge gap in energy production once fossil fuels begin to run out or become too expensive.

Transport is responsible for the biggest use of energy in the UK, accounting for 37% of all energy consumed. This is closely followed by domestic use of energy at 32%, with industry making up 18%.

At a time when we should be significantly reducing our energy outputs, the region is being committed to a retail and financial sector based economy that will require more energy while creating low paid, unskilled jobs. Cheap consumables with short life-spans, global supply chains, and an energy intensive transport infrastructure will result from this short-term plan. As energy prices continue to rise it will become an untenable model for the region. In fact, Birmingham already has one of the highest rates of fuel poverty in England with more than one in ten Birmingham households struggling to pay normal fuel bills.

While the rest of Europe is investing in renewables, and countries such as Costa Rica regularly operate on 100% renewable energy, the UK lags behind. Our politicians have failed to see the benefit of community owned renewable energy, leaving the population reliant upon the “big six” largely fossil fuel based corporations.

The solution

Given that transport is the biggest drain on energy, it would make sense to start there; and how better than with a cycling revolution? In Amsterdam 70% of all journeys are made by bike, improving health, making people more physically active, and ultimately lowering pollution.

Amsterdam’s cycling revolution began as a response to high rates of motor vehicle related deaths, but was compounded by a Middle Eastern oil crisis in 1973, when oil-producing countries stopped exports to the US and Western Europe. This gives us a glimpse at the future and underlines the importance of cycling as a post-carbon transport solution.

Domestic use of energy is also very high in the UK. This is not surprising when you consider that the UK's housing stock is amongst the least energy efficient in Europe. However, this presents a huge opportunity for Birmingham. The home energy efficiency market can stimulate both green construction and manufacturing industries. Major investment in energy efficiency could almost double the number of jobs in the sector. At the same time it would help to reduce the region’s reliance on imported gas by making homes energy efficient; saving £billions in gas imports every year.

Transition Street initiatives such as those practiced in Totnes can also make a difference. Over 550 households have cut an average £570 from their annual household bills and 1.2 tonnes from their carbon footprint. 38% of them - homeowners, tenants, community living and sheltered housing residents - have low disposable incomes.

But communities will also require means of energy production in the future. Investment in both small scale co-operatives, using solar, and larger scale projects drawing on wind could help Birmingham secure its energy future while empowering its citizens and bringing them out of fuel poverty.

Finally, closed loop solutions may offer the greatest means of energy production and waste management in the future. For instance, bioenergy offers energy security of supply and a stable energy system against the intermittency of renewables as well as reducing industrial, domestic and agricultural waste.

Biogas produced from organic waste such as manure and sewage is a low-cost fuel that can be used as an alternative to natural gas for both heating and electricity. The production of biogas reduces emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, as well as reducing water pollution from nutrient run-off. Birmingham’s supermarkets, hospitals, academic institutions, farms and its residents are all creating this energy resource every day; but currently much of it is simply being disposed of. By contrast, in Denmark, some 70% of its renewable energy consumption comes from biomass.

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