Energy is at the forefront of the minds of engineers and presents stiff policy challenges to governments all over the world. How to get more out of existing energy resources and how to develop new sustainable ones are two of the key questions facing the international community as we attempt to face the challenge of climate change; and facing that in a world with a rapidly increasing population and where developing nations are seeking greater standards of living for their citizens.
It is the development of technology that allows these resources to be exploited, but it is governments that set the energy policy agenda and that have the power to respond – or fail to respond – to environmental, societal and economic challenges.
Whether it is the development of technology or governments themselves that will take the lead in solving energy problems was the question posed by a debate organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering last night. There were convincing arguments on both sides. In a world of increasingly scarce and geographically concentrated fossil fuels (for example, 54% of the world's oil is in the Middle East and most gas reserves are concentrated in Russia), renewable energy technology opens up natural resources that are shared around the planet, such as solar. Technology has made energy delivery and use more efficient, getting more from less. Further, it can be argued, governments have made big errors in energy policy. Nuclear power in the UK, perhaps, is an example: if it had not fallen out of fashion so dramatically under previous regimes, we would not be facing a looming energy gap and a scramble to get new nuclear power stations built in an era when low-carbon electricity generation is essential.
But there are counter-arguments too. Would offshore wind farms be constructed around the UK without substantial government support when they would otherwise be seen as commercially risky and expensive by investors? Regulation and policy can incentivise the development of technologies that might otherwise fall by the wayside and help to correct failures in the markets. The relationship between government and technology can be viewed as symbiotic, or one of partnership. The international trade in energy – gas from Russia into the EU for example – depends on the interventions of governments and policymaking. And conflicts caused by the scramble for energy resources, which some believe could become more widespread as they thin, will be instigated – or averted – by nations.
The audience of engineers, scientists and other dignitaries at the academy debate, perhaps surprisingly, ultimately rejected the supposition that technology is more important than government in solving energy problems. The prevailing view seemed to be that the issue was much more complex and the motion too categorical.
Government? Technology? Both? On which side of the debate do you stand?
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