Positive energy

The terrifying prospect of a post-oil future: no more ready meals, traffic jams or lonely nights in

We held an ‘internal conference’ recently on the theme of climate change. These internal conferences give us an opportunity to meet together for three or four days a couple of times a year to consider matters of importance that face us.

During this most recent conference, it felt like the scale and urgency of the climate change crisis really landed within the community. In particular, a film of George Monbiot’s Schumacher Lecture based around his book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet Boiling, had an electrifying effect. True to the spirit of this place, the predominant mood was one of excitement at the scale of the challenge rather than depression.

Anyway, I was asked to give a presentation on the likely impacts of climate change for the work and operating methods of the community. I began by describing the various ways in which we as a society have developed structures – for the provision of food, clothing, building materials, in fact just about anything you can think of – that are entirely dependent on the availability of cheap energy. Fine, except that the age of cheap energy is ending before our eyes, caught between the rock of climate change and hard place of Peak Oil.

Then, keeping a straight face with some effort, I provided a stern introduction to the images I proposed to show to illustrate the world that I suggested we are about to move into. "Scramble for the remaining oil... resource wars... starvation... armed gangs purloining food at the barrel of a gun..."

Some of the images I would show, I suggested, were so disturbing that those of a nervous disposition might choose to avert their eyes. But I defiantly declared myself unapologetic about being the bearer of truths that might be hard to hear.

What followed was a slide-show of happy people working and playing together in community. "We will have no choice but to learn to live without chemically produced food shipped in from the other side of the world" – images of people working in our food gardens. "No more processed, ready-made meals" – pictures of community members happily working in our kitchens. "No more coal-fired power stations" – shots of our wind turbines and solar panels.

"I am sorry, but we are going to have to learn to survive without traffic jams" – photos of folk cycling and working in the myriad small-scale enterprises we have around the community. "No more pouring our shit out into the sea" – an image of our Living Machine biological waste treatment plant. "No more lonely nights in front of the television!" – shots of people here singing, dancing and creating theatre.

The talk had its desired effect as we opened to the possibility that a lower carbon lifestyle might just have its upsides.

Does this mean that the transition before us will be pain-free? Of course not. The point is that it is still very much within our hands whether that transition will be seeped in blood and suffering or will involve the restructuring of society along simpler, more decentralised, equitable and convivial lines.

There are now countless community initiatives around the country that are preparing themselves for life post-cheap energy. I am part of a team putting on an international conference to be held here next Easter that will showcase many of these. It is called: Positive Energy: Creative Community Responses to Peak Oil and Climate Change.

One of the presenters at that conference, Richard Heinberg, has this to say about the times that lie before us:

"Let us accept the current challenge – the next great energy transition – as an opportunity to re-imagine human culture from the ground up, using our intelligence and our passion for the welfare of coming generations and for the integrity of nature’s web as our primary guides."

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.