THE BLOG

The Energy Crisis Is Here to Stay, Which Is Why Solar Power Needs to Start Shining

07/03/2013 15:46 GMT | Updated 07/05/2013 10:12 BST

The business of providing UK industry and consumers with enough affordable energy makes periodic appearances in the media.

In November 2012 there was widespread coverage dedicated to the story that Centrica, the UK's biggest energy company, was to withdraw from all new UK nuclear projects. The news was applauded and lambasted in roughly equal measure. Last month Ofgem's prediction that Britain would run dangerously short of energy by 2015 was a "cause of concern", while ten days later Centrica made easy headlines once more by announcing an 11% increase in profits, which "angered consumers".

These stories usually garner blanket coverage and stir up a fleeting furore on the legion of 'Have-Your-Say' radio phone-ins and news channels. Yet in all cases, with nothing resolved, the the issue was entirely forgotten the following day, as the news agenda ran on to something else. 

Rarely is there an attempt to join these items together, which is somewhat surprising. The truth is that energy prices will continue to rise (and rise) and energy shortages will become an everyday issue for us all, not simply of episodic interest due to the publication of a set of financial results; a change of corporate strategy; or the sound of the latest eye-watering fuel bill dropping onto the mat.

Energy is the most important issue in the world today and it's getting more important every day. We are living through a period of explosive population growth that will see at least another two billion people added to the global population - currently standing at 7.1 billion - over the next 20 years. All these new world citizens will come with the need for food, water and energy; needs which must be met against a backdrop of dwindling natural resources.

Competition for those same resources will also come from the rapidly developing economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China (known collectively as the BRICs) whose four billion residents aspire to the lifestyles enjoyed by those fortunate enough to be living in Western Europe and North America. Lifestyles that are hugely dependent upon oil.

Cheap oil underpins our world. We use oil for power and transport, but we also build with oil - it is a vital component in the production of steel, aluminium and concrete - and we eat oil as well. Five billion people depend existentially on food grown using artificial fertiliser produced by burning petroleum.

Based on a simple calculation of 2kW per person (which is roughly twice their food intake), demand for energy is forecast to increase from 17TW globally in 2011 to 28TW by 2050. The impact of this rise in energy demand and fall in fuel supply will be felt across the board: food prices alone are expected to double in real terms by 2030.

Where is all this additional energy going to come from? Not from oil - it's unlikely we will ever be able to increase capacity beyond current production of 89m barrels a day, regardless of however much is left. Not from coal or natural gas - the environmental consequences would be catastrophic - and almost certainly not from nuclear, wind or wave power either - there just isn't enough.

What it will take to sustain a world of nine billion people is the subject of Project Sunshine. Achieving this goal is possible and realistic, but it will not be easy. It will not happen by accident and it will bring changes for all of us in both the way that we live and in what we consume. It is without doubt the biggest challenge of our age. This statement is not intended to belittle the impact of climate change, but the repercussions of global warming will play out along a geological timescale of decades; we have some time to adapt and respond to the consequences. In contrast we are already living with the results of explosive population growth: rising fuel and food prices, wars, immigration, famine, energy shortages and economic uncertainty. These issues affect us all today and all are a direct consequence of adding one million people to the population of the developing world every five days.

Big problems require radical solutions, but there are genuine grounds for some optimism. Fundamentally, we need to reconnect the global economy with the sun and live within our means, just as we did in the past. Capturing a single hour of the sunlight that reaches the earth - a tiny fraction of our star's output - would meet our global energy needs for a whole year. Harnessing the power of the sun will allow us to meet the increasing food and energy needs of the world's population in the context of an uncertain climate and global environment change.

Project Sunshine's message is profound and optimistic, but not profoundly optimistic. Success entails that a world containing nine billion people will have to be very be different to the one we are living in to day. Different, but not necessarily worse. Sustainable routes to food and energy security can be found, but time is of the essence. The clock is ticking.

Project Sunshine: How The Sun Can Help Science to Fuel and Feed The World by Steve McKevitt and Tony Ryan is published by Icon Books, priced £16.99.