All Party Parliamentary Engineering and Information Technology Group (APPEITG) dinner debate chaired by Professor the Lord Broers, with distinguished speakers Lord Lawson of Blaby, Sir Alan Rudge, Professor David Mackay and Adrian Bull.
Only a few days after bonfire night, which celebrated 403 years since quashing the Gunpowder Plot, I found myself standing tall, slipping through a secret door in Westminster Underground Station and gliding serenely across flagstones worn by the feet of many wise men, in surroundings more than slightly akin to a Harry Potter novel. I’m sure the stories these parliamentary walls could tell would make extraordinary reading too.
As a young engineer, I had been invited to participate in a parliamentary debate entitled ‘Will we be able to pay the price for our energy strategy?’ Sparky speaking tested everyone’s policy knowledge, illuminating wide-ranging facts and provocative beliefs that had questions tumbling from all lips once the motion was thrown out to the floor. Hummingbirds retained the magic of the evening, hovering just out of reach above every head throughout proceedings, or at least that’s what the tiny microphones dangling from invisible wire would have been if this was the Ministry of Magic.
Central to the debate was consideration of how we will deliver electricity to the UK in the future. Whilst, everyone present was agreed that changes need to be made to our electricity production, it seems people generally fall into one of two camps when it comes to the reasons why; those who believe change in sourcing is necessary to ensure continued security of supply and to reduce the UK’s dependency on trade with countries that have bad human rights records and lack democracy, as these are the regions fossil fuels tend to be located; and those who are keen to reduce the environmental impact of our energy production and focus on meeting government targets for carbon reduction. (It was interesting to note that many are still sceptical about global warming and our associated responsibility to reduce carbon release into the atmosphere, despite scientists repeatedly stating that evidence points to this almost certainly being true and engineering codes of practice already forcing engineers to design for an increased future climate.) Other compelling reasoning included the UK’s future well-being resting on its ability to improve its balance of trade and become self-sustaining. Also mentioned was the option of mitigating UK energy needs by educating and incentivising individuals to make lifestyle changes, hence reducing demand.
Whichever the primary reason driving the need to change our energy sources, it seemed that almost everyone in the room agreed that this is what needs to happen. Whilst one speaker focussed on playing devil’s advocate, pointing out that we have had forty years worth of extractable oil left for the last thirty years and that no other country has a mandatory commitment to cut carbon emissions because no other country is so stupid, the majority of the debate focussed on what strategies could be employed to deliver change. Having recently spent time focussing on tactics for delivering education about nuclear power to school children in order to alter negative perceptions, it was topical to note that nuclear power is going to be an important part of UK energy strategy going forward in the absence of having sufficiently developed, reliable, renewable sources. There is the intention to build new nuclear power stations in the UK – with 2018 being the date the first wave are expected to be commissioned – to increase the proportion of electricity produced by nuclear power in the UK from 17% to 30%. However there is no actual commitment as yet and in order to make it a viable option it’s important we learn from others. France have 58 nuclear power stations all of which are built to one of three designs. The UK has 19 stations of which there are 15 different designs! We would do well to introduce standardisation and implement economies of scale.
Elsewhere it was noted that, as we have not yet found the philosopher’s stone of sustainable energy solutions, we would be wise to continue investing in and developing our other options. Of the renewables, harnessing tidal energy is favoured, due to its supply predictability, and wind is seen as an expensive investment for little benefit. Despite the carbon emissions associated with its use, gas was also mentioned as development in technologies to extract gas from shale make it almost abundant in supply. Whilst informative and thought provoking, the proceedings weren’t lacking a sense of humour; it was noted that if only we could harness the hot air filling the room, we may be on our way to resolving the issue!
APPEITG is leading the way with its enlightened inclusion of young engineers in high-level scientific debate. It’s a sight to behold to see so many young engineers voicing their opinions and equally so many discerning guests taking the time to engage with us. Whichever reasons you choose to prioritise, energy source strategy affects us all and isn’t going to go away – it is an issue that will factor prominently in the decision-making we make throughout our future careers. As engineers and policy makers we are better placed than most to influence change, so initiatives such as APPEITG should be praised for strengthening links between sectors and exposing us young engineers to the factors influencing the legislation we work within, broadening our understanding of fundamental issues that will help us become the ones making positive judgment calls.