Let there be light…

"Sir, Writing by Candlelight…" was the unimprovable title for a collection of essays by the radical historian Edward Thompson. It captured the aggrieved tone of a particular class of person firing off a letter to the press, during the three day week in the UK, perhaps, when Edward Heath's government confronted the coal miners, or the all out miners' strike a decade later. Don't these people realise how I and others are suffering here? Get them back to work. They have a duty to keep things going; but I (we) have no obligations to them.

An image from a film visualising global oil consumption from an animation produced by Carbon Visuals for World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The world uses enough oil every 15 seconds to fill an Olympic swimming pool. That is 92.7 million barrels of oil a day. Watch in motion.  

An image from a film visualising global oil consumption from an animation produced by Carbon Visuals for World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The world uses enough oil every 15 seconds to fill an Olympic swimming pool. That is 92.7 million barrels of oil a day. Watch in motion.  

It's a kind of taking-things-for-granted that has other roots, though, apart from assumed privilege. Electricity, like carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere, is essentially invisible. We only see its effects. And, seeing being the ground of many evocative metaphors, light is the effect that comes most readily to mind. So it's no surprise that when huge decisions like the much-deferred go-ahead for Britain's next planned nuclear power station at Hinkley Point are discussed in the press, they invariably refer to the need "to keep the lights on".

It's an impoverished way to talk about such things. Domestic electrification isn't that old. (Parts of rural Ireland didn't get it until well after World War Two). But we've got used to it. We just want that light to come on when we move the switch. But it's a poor symbol for the entire energy system. It effaces all the other things we do with electric power. It points away from questions about what kind of light we're activating (incandescent bulb; low-energy fluorescent bulb; LED?). And, on a larger canvas, it diverts attention from how the wires connecting the light (or anything else) are fed. 

In short, electricity has properties that help keep our energy infrastructure invisible, too.

It sounds an odd thing to say, when electricity involves colossal extractive industries, massive installations, trillions of dollars. But the whole point about essential services becoming part of a society's infrastructure, in a way, is that they achieve a kind of invisibility. Places without a reliable grid haven't done that yet - the smoky diesel generator that keeps the lights on is all too visible. 

But for most of us in old, industrialised countries, the grid separates user from source. That's a problem when we need to think hard, and urgently, about decarbonising our economies. Renewables, in some of their incarnations, make infrastructure visible again - fields of solar panels, wind turbines on hilltops - and some object. That's partly novelty: pylons seem to have gone from being objectionable to inconspicuous to, for some, objects of aesthetic contemplation.

But it's also an indication, I think, of how little awareness we have of where the energy comes from. Improving that - first of all raising consciousness, then developing a more sophisticated understanding of the options for different kinds of use - would surely help enrich policy debates about future energy supply. How to do that?

The other customary invocation just now is "maintaining energy security". At its simplest, that's pretty much synonymous with keeping the lights on. Get it wrong, we're told, and we'll be freezing in the dark. (Remember when some winters used to be really cold?) 

Beyond that, security is a tricky term these days. On one hand, it is used to browbeat people - any policy, no matter how foolish, seems beyond criticism if it has the handy word "security" attached. And it's an abstraction that comes loaded with symbolism, and charged with feeling, when we try and make it tangible. Seeing a fellow passenger reading Arabic on a phone screen makes some people on aeroplanes feel "insecure".

However, I fancy it's expansiveness as a concept has good possibilities, too. True, there are simple, concrete uses that don't move energy debates in the right direction. Promoting onshore fracking for natural gas, as the UK government does, as a contribution to energy security, is a poorly disguised compression of "get fossil fuels from our own land instead of importing them from other countries who don't like us".

But security crops up in lots of other contexts, not least global change. It's not too hard to convey to people that bush fires, floods, droughts, storms and heat waves are threats to security - and food security embraces all that, along with plenty of other factors, too. So it ought not to be hard, either, to connect energy security to other forms of security. That means, among other things, asking:

When you turn the light on, what had to happen to make that possible? And what else happens as a consequence? It means adopting a mindset that turns an event back into a process.

One way to encourage that is to help us all visualise the process - which is part of our business at RealWorldVisuals. Some of us already find it hard not to see our energy system, from power stations to phone chargers, as a set of installations that leave trails of carbon bubbles, some large, some small, all contributing to atmospheric load. Now we want to build on that by making interactives that help everyone get a grasp on how infrastructure can be changed - and which changes can work together. Our latest project Ireland 2050, launched this week, is a useful (we hope) move in that direction.

I wonder what else we might usefully do in this vein that nudges thinking about energy security in the right fashion? And helps keep the lights on, of course.



 Blog by Jon Turney, Real World Visuals