Sustainable energy for the 21st century: Can we ensure a bright future?

Sustainable energy for the 21st century: Can we ensure a bright future?
5th November 2012 Ashley Morton

Tuesday 23rd October saw the British Library host another one of their Talk Science sessions (evenings to engage informal debates on topical scientific research issues) this time on ‘Sustainable energy for the 21st century: can we ensure a bright future?’ a topical discussion subject and one that attracted a packed audience.  The evening took the form of a discussion panel chaired by The Guardian’s environmental correspondent Fiona Harvey who led the introductions and initial discussion with the panel before selecting audience questions to put forward for debate.

The panel was made up of four esteemed experts within the field of energy research including  LoLo’s very own Dr Kirk Shanks (Loughborough University) alongside Professor Colin Snape (director of the Energy Technologies Research Institute, Nottingham University); Professor Phil Taylor (DONG Energy Chair in Renewable Energy, Durham University); and Daniel Crean (PhD student at Nuclear First DTC, Sheffield University).  The panel deliberately covered a wide range of energy research backgrounds such as the built environment, industrial energy technologies, renewable energy technology incorporation with current energy systems and nuclear energy technology and decommissioning.

The event was open to discussion surrounding creating a sustainable energy future however the three main areas were mixing it up, technology vs. behaviour and keeping the lights on.  The initial panel discussion raised many issues within these three areas including:

Mixing it up – Is today’s energy mix correct for the future?  Do we treat all energy sources equally?  What impacts will changing our energy sources have on our energy use, carbon emissions and the quality of the energy supply?  How should we be targeting our future energy mix – should we be focussing on costs, carbon savings or security of supply?

Technological fixes vs. behavioural change – Can technological advances ensure that we meet the 2050 carbon targets or do we need to shift focus towards the need for individual responsibility to change energy use and reduce demand?  How can we encourage people to adopt more energy efficient technologies when there is already poor uptake of improvement measures such as loft insulation?  Which sector needs to be responsible for the biggest savings – industry, transport, domestic or should it be equal?

Keeping the lights on – Could the UK cope with reduced energy generation considering that many of our coal and nuclear power plants are nearing the end of their lifespans?  Would we be more accepting to increased oil/gas imports or can we cope with the intermittent nature of some renewable energy sources?

With such wide areas of interest it was no surprise that there was far too many audience questions to get through but most of the questions fell into three main categories:

Political – Are government policies causing delays in moving towards a different energy mix or do we need to change where incentives are available?  With the privatised energy system we have it essentially becomes a broken value chain in which no company wants to become the first to make a move towards a new energy system.

Technology – How do we make technology the solution to energy sustainability when technologies such as CCS have been promised for years yet we are still waiting for the first full scale test plant.  Are we just setting ourselves up to bridge the energy technology gap up till 2050 or are they sustainable for the long term?

Behavioural change – The entire panel agreed that there needed to be a shift in attitudes to ensure a sustainable future but where exactly does the change need to be made?  Some of the panel stated that the driver towards behaviour change needed to be started with school education so that we ensure the future generation has a different attitude towards energy compared to the current generation – a move away from the expectation of always having energy available towards a desire to conserve energy as much as possible.

Unfortunately due to time constraints there was no opportunity to delve into detail on any of the questions raised however it did highlight the difference in issues of energy sustainability across different sectors and the panel did often disagree with what needed to be prioritised.  Many of the audience did leave the event asking themselves more questions than going away with the answer for ensuring a bright future towards sustainable energy – however this just proves that there is no one definite answer towards the problem the UK is currently facing.  With so many interesting factors raised at the event I would highly recommend attending some of the future British Library’s inspiring science events due to start in March 2013.

Information available soon at


by Ashley Morton

Sustainable energy for the 21st century: Can we ensure a bright future? thumb