Energy security: the importance of energy research in the UK

Interviewer: Andy Tootell (Ideas Lab)
Guest:  Dr Stefan Bouzarovski
Recorded: 05/04/2012
Broadcast: 16/04/2012

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Andy: Hello, I’m here with Dr Stefan Bouzarovski who’s Senior Lecturer in Human Geography and Coordinator of the Energy, Society and Place Research Unit at the University of Birmingham.  Hello, Stefan.

Stefan: Hello.

Andy: Now we’re here today to talk about energy security. What do we mean by the term ‘energy security’?

Stefan:  We tend to think of energy security and that’s how it tends to be defined by a lot of governments, by a lot of decision making bodies, as the provision of reliable energy at an acceptable and affordable price.   That’s what we tend to think of energy security, but immediately that opens up a lot of questions:  what’s reliable? What’s affordable? Unfortunately that doesn’t include two very important dimensions of energy security, one being the spacial dimension, another being the temporal dimension.  So what do I mean by that? Well, it’s very much linked to the question ‘energy security for whom?’  So when you say energy security, are we making a country secure? Are we providing a country with reliable – whatever that means – energy supplies and affordable as well or are we providing maybe a region with energy security? Or are we providing an individual, a household, with energy security? Surely from the point of view of myself and yourself, what matters really is that lights don’t go off in our immediate vicinity, in our immediate everyday lives, and of course then you can also be asking the question ‘are we providing energy security for an entire transnational block for the whole of the world?’. So all these questions aren’t really clear. So when you say ‘energy security’ it immediately becomes contested. And also there’s a temporal dimension, so are we dealing with what some might call a long-term stress to our energy security?  In other words a persistent threat or a persistent hazard that is articulated over a long period of time, or is it something that is a short term event such as there not being enough petrol at the petrol stations or there being an oil refinery strike or the gas supply being suddenly cut, which is surely a short term issue rather than a long term issue.  So immediately we begin to see how complex this is.

Andy: We’ve previously spoken to Professor Martin Freer who has been leading the Birmingham Policy Commissions on the future of nuclear power and he said in one of our interviews with him that he felt that the British public had yet to grasp the looming energy crisis. Would you agree with that?

Stefan: I would certainly say that we are facing some very difficult choices in the years to come. Perhaps had we dealt with these issues at the national scale a while ago perhaps we wouldn’t be facing such difficult choices now.  At the moment there are two or three major reasons for concern and one of them is of course climate change, the fact that we need to reduce our carbon emissions. Another one is price, so the fact that some energy sources are more expensive than others. And a third one is again, to understand very widely, security, so how we balance let’s say strategic considerations in the short term and also in terms of various spatial domains where energy might be coming from. In the years to come, energy will become more expensive, that’s very obvious. The concentration of resources will move much more towards national control of energy, many of it in rather undemocratic countries and at the same time there will also be an increased and rather urgent emphasis for us to reduce our carbon emissions but also to reduce the environmental impacts of energy.  So the fact that all of these three things are coming together in the years to come will certainly make it very challenging for us to move towards an energy system that somehow lies in the middle of all these three options and it’s certainly going to emphasise how political all energy decisions are, how much they are contingent on valued judgements about what our future should be like.  So I don’t think we are going to face a crisis in terms of the lights are not going to go out, but, we are certainly going to face difficult decisions and some people will be worse off than others because of those decisions. 

Andy: At a NATO summit in Riga in 2006, US Senator Richard Lugar said that energy was becoming ‘the weapon of choice’ for those who possess it, which was happening around the time that Russia had shut off gas supplies to the Ukraine.  Do you think there’s sort of a dangerous imbalance between the haves and the have-nots, between the producers of energy and the consumers?

Stefan: There certainly is evidence that states who are energy rich, especially in terms of hydrocarbons, are using those resources to leverage their strategic position at the international stage. Now whether energy can be termed ‘a weapon’ in that very much more narrow sense of the word ‘weapon’, I think is debatable because you always have to think about the fact that energy resources, energy supplies, are produced or generated by somebody but they also have to be consumed by somebody else.  So energy is never a one-way process, it’s always a relational good.  So in terms of energy security we can think of security of supply of course which is what everyone is obsessed about these days, but you can also think of security of demand, security of transit as well and these dimensions mean that the position of anyone who tries to use energy in a strategic way is rather complicated because if they cut off the supply to some of their users for political reasons as it were, then that sends a message to the other users of that energy about their reliability and all of a sudden that supplier might find themselves being cut off from the energy market.  So yes, there’s evidence about that and it’s certainly happening in the gas sector quite a lot. 

Andy: You’ve been invited to a dinner in Westminster [‘Perspectives on Energy’ – Tuesday May 8th 2012] with the Right Honourable David Willetts MP who’s Minister of State for Universities and Science, to discuss energy. What do you think the relevance is of the Minister of State for Universities and Science convening a dinner for thinkers and academics in the area of energy?

Stefan: Well, given what we’ve just discussed, the very complex challenges that the UK is likely to face in the coming decades regarding the choices about our energy future, it is clear that scientific research has a very major role to play in informing policy makers, the public, non-Governmental organisations, about the implications of energy decisions.  In the UK we have a very vibrant energy research sector. There’s a lot of knowledge being produced out there and it needs to be supported to develop further. It is very much like the work we’re doing here in Birmingham. We’ve recently consolidated our work in a central initiative – you might have heard of the Energy at Birmingham initiative – where we’re working together with academics across the university – engineers, computer scientists, historians – to start understanding some of these challenges and indeed one of the problems until now has been this issue of silo thinking; everyone thinking within their own little box. But indeed what the situation that we’re facing now is showing is that energy decisions are not narrow technical or technocratic decisions, they take place within a wider social and political context and indeed for them to work the importance of that context has to be understood and properly researched.  Actually I do see this dinner as an opportunity to emphasise the importance of energy research in the UK and also the need for it to grow and develop further. 

Andy: Well I hope that the dinner is a great success and I hope you enjoy discussing these topics with other people in your field and thank you very much indeed for joining me today. 

Stefan: Thank you for inviting me. 

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Andy Tootell.