Q&A with Professor Janusz Bialek

The New Statesman speaks to Professor Janusz Bialek, chair of electrical power and control, Durham U

What would be the fastest way of decarbonising the economy by 2030?
There is no silver bullet. There is huge uncertainty about the future and about new technologies, so the best way would be to use a portfolio. Renewables, nuclear power, carbon capture, energy storage - all these technologies are important, and it is a question of debating what is more important and efficient in the short term and the long term.

Can efficiency improvements significantly reduce carbon emissions?
The housing stock in this country is appalling. When I came here from the Continent, I was shocked by how poorly insulated houses are. The government should move towards low-carbon economic needs, with the first subsidies used to improve efficiency of housing stock.You can reduce production, you can reduce consumption by a certain amount, but at the end of the day you need energy. Efficiency is a low-hanging fruit - it should be used first.

Can individual behaviour make a difference to our energy consumption?
It's very important. A number of things could be done in terms of public engagement. In Kuwait in the summer, energy consumption is driven by air-conditioning and there is a shortage of supply. On the TV screen, they had a little dial that showed how close the country was to full capacity. People knew that if they got to full capacity, they would have blackouts, so they switched off things that weren't needed. That had quite a good effect.

 

Are the British government and industry committed to reducing our reliance on carbon fuels?
That's the main problem. All these goals are achievable technically. What is important is economics, and politics. If we adopt, as the British government recently has, aggressive targets for reducing carbon emissions, it puts us at a disadvantage, because it raises our costs while other countries continue to provide cheaper energy. That means that the energy industry will move abroad.

If we had international agreement, we would be on a level playing field. But the fiasco of the Copenhagen Agreement showed that when you have all the governments together, it is next to impossible to reach accord and get people with different agendas to agree on a common good.

Is the money allocated always well spent?
The government is wasting a lot of money on things like solar panels or wind turbines for houses. All those domestic means of energy production are very inefficient. Solar energy in the north of Europe doesn't make much sense - just look through the window and you will see.

Is a low-carbon future technically and economically viable?
It is certainly technically viable - it's just a question of how much it will cost. If the whole world goes for it, then it makes sense, but agreement is very difficult. There is also the question of the efficiency of different technologies and the return for investors. All you can do is insulate yourself against the different possible outcomes by diversifying. By covering the whole spectrum, you should be able to minimise the risk and cost.

What are the main barriers to a low-carbon economy at the moment?
For onshore wind, the main problem is planning. The wind turbines necessary to meet the targets cover a huge area and people are quite rightly against this. That's why you try offshore - which increases the costs dramatically. There are other technical barriers. Carbon capture is technically viable but no one knows if it will work on a large scale. Energy storage at the moment is not cost-effective.

Should we be more worried about not having enough energy in the future, or not having the right kind of energy?
Our society depends on energy. Our civilisation cannot function without it. The right kind of energy is a global, economic and political imperative. The most important thing is securing supply, but second we must think about the right kind of energy.

Where does responsibility for cutting carbon lie: with consumers, business or government?
The government has the main responsibility. It sets the policy, and the policy dictates the shape of the future of energy. Businesses will do whatever they can get away with to maximise their profit. I wouldn't overestimate the role of the public - at the end of the day, they will vote for the government offering the lowest taxes.

During your time in this field, have you ever had your scientific assumptions proved wrong, or revised your opinion?
All the time - this is a moving field. There are constant technical developments, which would force any scientist to change his or her opinions. My assumption has always been that energy storage is not cost-effective, but maybe someone will come up with a new solution.

Are we all doomed?
The human race has survived all kinds of crises. Necessity is the mother of invention, and people will come through with new solutions. We are an infinitely inventive race. Engineering solutions and technical solutions are easy. Getting political consensus is the big challenge.