It has been said that Russia’s ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine was the precursor to the UK’s energy market heading into a tailspin, exposing a short-sighted eggs-in-one-basket approach that failed to learn from the Kremlin’s ‘previous’ of invading Georgia and in 2014 the Crimea and Donbas. If the West doesn’t like Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine, and quite rightly it doesn’t, a failure to wean itself off Russian hydrocarbons has highlighted the double-standards of condemning the regime, whilst tacitly and even overtly relying on it to keep the lights on.
We can then see that lessons have not been heeded. The UK is not alone in its reactionary, not proactive approach to energy security. A perfect storm of spiralling utility costs for consumers coupled with a Truss administration where seemingly anything goes has resulted in the moratorium on Fracking being lifted, with the proposed Sizewell C nuclear power station given the green light against a backdrop of considerable environmental concerns within its immediate locale. Nuclear is though perhaps in a special category which provokes a strong public reaction of its own, but one quite different to those generated by the allies and detractors of renewables and fossil fuels.
It should not though be assumed that Russia is solely to blame for the aforementioned, in particular the highly controversial process of hydraulically fracturing rocks to obtain the shale gas beneath. The Conservative Party are apparently the party for free enterprise, but don’t be surprised if the sector’s lobbyists and the businesses concerned with Fracking are large financial donors to the Tories. Silly things like the environment and food security, in other words not building endless amounts of housing on farmland that can and should be used to grow our own food, are paid lip service, and that is notwithstanding a worrying lack of commitment to animal welfare.
However, the pursuit of alternative energy sources should not be because of what occurs in Russia and Ukraine, but that it is the morally correct approach to take. It should not be about lining the coffers, making more money, and keeping benefactors’ happy, but waking up to the fact the there is a vital synergy between human life and the natural world. A balance can and must be struck where both work in unison, but not at the expense of an environment which once paved/concreted/tarmacked over will never return. The mental health benefits of green space, of nature’s wonders, cannot be underestimated.
Here though lies the problem. Renewable energy sources are not without sacrifice and controversy. As the European Alps’ glaciers inexorably melt, an increase in water draining from higher reaches can be used to power hydroelectricity, but as levels of precipitation have dramatically decreased this water can also be channelled away into reservoirs for ever-thirsty domestic and commercial users. Water diverted away from upland agriculture exacerbates already hostile working conditions and prevents farmers from being able to provide water to their ‘out in the field’ livestock. Already hampered by high summer temperatures and low rainfall totals, this represents a double whammy which cannot be mitigated against.
How to sympathetically exploit an increase of glacial meltwater in the Alps’ rivers will always see more losers than winners. In what could be said to be making the best of a bad job, in other words mankind has created the Climate Change which is denuding Europe’s permanent icefields of its constituent part, the quandary of how to harvest this excess water incongruently in times of drought is not necessarily going to be what is best for the sensitive ecology found in mountainous regions.
Tapping into solar energy in what have in recent years been extremely hot European summers is something of an open goal, but where can solar arrays be sited that do not offend the eye, nor reduce yet further the amount of viable agricultural land needed to reduce our reliance on Ukraine and European Union countries for vital foodstuffs? Similarly, wind power is de rigueur but the damage it does to birds, who often live in the most inhospitable areas where wind farms are found, ensures that this supposedly environmentally friendly renewable gives with one hand but takes with another.
Last year I read a story of a farmer in the Austrian Tirol who during a period of high temperatures and low rainfall was struggling to get water to his upland animals. It transpired that water was difficult to access because it had been set aside for alpine storage ponds that litter the Alps but are in fact reserved for artificial snowmaking activities during the winter. Ironically, these are more abundant and necessary for the ski industry due to climate change not delivering enough snow, or at least days that are cold enough for the ‘real thing’ to be produced. It cannot be underplayed just what a powerful cabal the winter sports industry is, but the amount of water it consumes is unacceptable although again reflects how a lack of diversification has led to the tourism industry having an unhealthy reliance on snow, something that cannot be guaranteed, and water, finite in itself.
For the winter sports industry to continue when set amidst an unassailable foe that is Climate Change, difficult choices must be made. Lower resorts where the required amounts of snow are less guaranteed than ever cannot justify offsetting a dearth of natural precipitation by using obscene amounts of water and power to generate snow cannons. Resorts based at higher altitudes have a greater chance of receiving the snow that is needed, but even they must have the amount of water (and energy) they use capped, ensuring that cold but dry winters do not simply become enemies of the environment at the hands of desperate tourist associations.
It is clear that Russia’s incursions within Ukraine have brought energy security, production, and cost into sharp focus. I can quite see why for example the UK government can use the situation to its advantage but in reality, it only has itself to blame. Sadly, as is so often the case, the environment will be the one to pay a price it should never have to stand, but whilst the sacrifice it inadvertently makes is disguised behind buzzwords/phrases like growth and unleashing the economy, exactly how to effectively produce, store, and facilitate the use of energy both renewable and otherwise remains as big a mystery as it ever has been.
It is perhaps the greatest irony that snow making, and Fracking are two of the most water-intensive industries in the modern era. In one way or another both are performed in the name of big business, growth, and employment but neither will in the end be able to justify their respective existence. That though doesn’t mean they won’t endure, as those who ultimately make fiscal-based decisions continue to do so whilst looking the other way and with fingers in their ears.