Energy futures: how can we keep the lights on?

Saturday 18 October, 14.00 until 15.30, Conservatory, Barbican Interrogating Megatrends

Could Britain soon be facing blackouts? Over the past few years, EU rules have led to the closure of many coal-fired power stations. But after much prevarication by politicians, the generating capacity to replace these stations will not be available immediately. For the second half of this decade, the gap between peak demand and total power-station capacity will be close to zero. While much discussion focuses on increasing energy efficiency, the need to increase the absolute amount of energy available is still an urgent priority. 

While the situation will probably be managed with relatively little risk of serious harm, it does highlight both the technical challenges of ambitious planning for Britain’s energy future and the political ambivalence to such development. An enormous investment will be required in new power stations. By 2020, the UK is committed to generating 15 per cent of final energy demand from renewable sources. In effect, that means producing 30 per cent of electricity from renewables, mostly wind. By 2050, the UK must reduce total greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 per cent. Much of the delay in building a new energy infrastructure has come from competing pressures on each kind of technology. With the anticipated doubling of global demand for energy by 2050, when the world’s population is expected to reach nine billion, it is increasingly clear that innovative solutions will be required in order to maintain even current standards of living, let alone meet the needs of the rapidly industrialising developing world.  Yet we seem ambivalent about so many options that could solve the problem. 

There remains much nervousness about nuclear power, especially after the problems at Fukushima in 2011. Onshore windfarms generate as much opposition as electricity, it seems, while offshore windfarms are still extremely expensive, and both produce power intermittently. We are warned that biofuels push up food prices, that big dams displace the poor, and that subsidy-free and reliable wind and solar seem too far off to make a difference now. Meanwhile, shale gas - often touted as a low-cost, lower-carbon, ‘bridging’ energy source - has already attracted noisy opposition even from test drilling; environmentalists and nimbys have united to ensure ‘fracking’ is seen as highly contentious rather than a ‘no-brainer’ technical solution. All of this against the background of mounting anger at rising fuel bills and worries about relying on gas from unreliable regimes such as Russia.

Is it a positive development that a practical question such as energy production has become such a public hot potato? Are barriers to generating more sources of energy political, technical or environmental? If increased energy can be is secured, will it boost human prosperity by helping fuel economic growth, or will it simply accelerate the destruction of the planet? Can we make a positive case for increased energy production against a backdrop of disquiet about effects on the environment and ambivalence about economic growth per se?  How much power should we produce, where should it come from and what methods should be used to produce it? How can we satisfy competing demands, contested priorities and keep the lights on? 

Watch the debate:

Gemma Adams
principal sustainability advisor, Forum for the Future

Paul Ekins
professor of resources and environmental policy, director, UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, University College London; deputy director, UK Energy Research Centre

Rob Lyons
science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Economy Forum

Dr Keith MacLean
independent energy advisor; industry chair, Energy Research Partnership

Dr Alan Walker
Head of policy, Royal Academy of Engineering

Tony Gilland
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas

Produced by
Tony Gilland associate fellow, Academy of Ideas
Rob Lyons science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Economy Forum
Recommended readings
We need to generate an energy revolution

To transform society, we need cheap, abundant power. Let's get on with it.

Rob Lyons, spiked, 9 October 2014

Frack to the future

Forget ‘security’ and ‘resilience’ - we need a positive case for new energy

Tim Black, spiked, 27 March 2014

Two cheers for nuclear

The UK government has sealed a deal for new nuclear power stations. About time, too.

Rob Lyons, spiked, 22 October 2013

Climate change: EU rebrands green energy campaign Roger Harrabin, BBC News, 8 October 2012

Why we cannot keep the lights on without nuclear energy

If we care about the security of our energy supplies: if we care about the affordability of our electricity: if we care about reducing the UK’s carbon emissions, then there is no alternative to unprecedented amounts of all viable, proven, renewable sources of electricity BUT we will still also need a significant proportion of nuclear energy in our electricity mix.

Dame Sue Ion, Independent, 24 October 2011

We should aspire to abundant and cheap energy for all

From fracking to Fukushima, to oil spills and the threat of global warming, an alarming aspect of the energy debate is the way it has become conducted through the prism of fear.

Tony Gilland, Independent, 24 October 2011

Nuclear energy: clean, reliable and powerful

Physicist Wade Allison expertly demolishes fears about radiation. If only he was equally as sceptical about the fear-fuelled climate-change panic.

Rob Lyons, spiked, 16 April 2011

Energy Security - Is the UK doing enough?

Energy security has been a major concern of governments, business and consumers in its different guises for a long time. This debate looks at whether the UK is doing enough to deliver security of supply, how business, society and government can best contribute and the strategies that will ensure best access to secure and sustainable energy in the UK.

Shell, 20 November 2010

Generating the Future: UK energy systems fit for 2050

This report, produced by a working group of Fellows of The Royal Academy of Engineering, considers possible energy scenarios that could meet the 2050 emissions reduction target. (pdf)

The Royal Academy of Engineering, March 2010


''If the world could be more thoughtful about energy supply, we could all afford to be thoughtless about our personal use of energy.'

James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky, Beautiful Books, 22 January 2009

follow the Academy of Ideas


Keep up to date with Academy of Ideas news and events by joining our mailing list.

Session partners