Candles in the wind

19 Jul 2022

Energy security – candles in the wind

Harold Hutchinson | Head of UK Research at Investec

Security of energy supply has again come to dominate the triad of ensuring reliable, clean and affordable energy. In today’s blog, Harold argues that our energy future is as much about consumers and demand as it is about technology and supply. This implies a need to reconsider the value we place on our neighbours.

The Big Freeze of 1962-1963 still resonates with those of us more advanced in years. Then, the images were of icicle-adorned trees, frozen lakes, snow-blocked railways, and downed electricity lines. All this following the Cuban Missile Crisis a few weeks earlier. When ghostly storms howled outside and power cuts plunged us into darkness, Mum calmly brought out the candles and a flickering light was quickly restored. She would then go and check our elderly neighbours were comfortable.

As part of a generation that had lived through WW2, I guess my parents thought of it as a mild irritation rather than anything else.

Tragically, war is again a theme in Europe. Despite the hot summer, we now need to think ahead to the coming cold winter, as gas supplies shrink and geopolitical tensions rise. Is our energy future secure?

‘Energy security’ has a wide spectrum of meaning – including foreign ‘dependence’, structural ‘shortages’, and sudden ‘losses’. Each brings its own nuances and challenges.

Energy shortages and concerns about dependence normally result from the deliberate abuse of monopoly power, such as the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) embargoes in the 1970s or Russian gas cuts today.

Despite a foreseeable hard winter ahead in Europe as we adapt to current realities, there is more than a glimmer of hope. We live on a solar-powered planet providing us with a bounty of renewable energy. Not only does the sun supply us with solar rays, it is also the force powering the Earth’s water cycle and driving global winds.

The sun emits more energy in one second than we need to power our descendants for hundreds of thousands of years. Today, most of that energy is simply lost, although it helps to fuel satellites sent to explore the depths of space-time. However, even if we restrict ourselves to the few rays of sunlight intercepted by Earth, more energy from the sun reaches our planet’s surface in one hour than is needed by everyone in the world for one year.

So, there is some good news. Energy cartels will eventually be tamed by a simple star – our sun. Technology is well on the way to ensuring this result. So, when we invest in renewable energy, there is an unseen benefit for us all. We undermine the real enemy of both energy security and affordability – the abuse of monopoly power.

If the energy is there in abundance, the other dimensions of energy security are mostly technical, where human invention and innovation can be powerful allies. New storage technologies and software optimisation packages are already advancing fast to ensure we have energy where and when we need it. They constitute further important battalions to defeat the monopolists.

If sun, energy storage and smart software are all there to help us, what is all the fuss about? The answer, in part, goes back to a reconsideration of the Big Freeze. A bright energy future also depends critically on each one of us as consumers, and how we react to short-term uncertainties.

Collaboration has marked humanity’s fragile progress through time, which has often been (and remains for many) a desperate struggle for daily survival. It is only a spirit of collegiality that has warded off threats of all types through our common history.

Perhaps we need to rediscover something of a ‘wartime’ mentality right now – meaning not a desire for war, but a common determination for justice and not to be bullied by barons. This is the immediate challenge in energy, be it in terms of local energy costs, regional security of supply, or indeed global climate challenges. As far as this coming winter is concerned, we can see it through if we work together in this spirit.

The energy triad is usually summarised as a trade-off between security of supply, affordability and environmental sustainability. But we must never forget what sits within the angles – at its centre, solving the energy triad boils down to us.

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Disclaimer: The blog does not aim to give investment advice, but is designed to afford relevant longer-term context to investors, encouraging a broad perspective where uncertainty is high and a spirit of learning is important. The views expressed are those of the author, not those of Investec.