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The energy crisis: how did we get here and where do we go next?

23 May 2023

Jacki Bell, ICE Low Carbon Energy Community Advisory Board member, explores the UK’s energy history and advice for the future.

The energy crisis: how did we get here and where do we go next?
We must strengthen the resilience of our energy infrastructure. Image credit: Shutterstock

We’ve all heard the term ‘energy crisis’, but what does it actually mean?

And what do we, as civil engineers, need to do to continue delivering long lasting, robust solutions that serve society and enable mobility, security, warmth and health?

Civil engineers will play a crucial role in the energy transition, but first, we need to understand how we got here.

The history: providing access to reliable power

The national grid was established in 1935 to bring together the electricity generating capacity around Great Britain.

It ensured that all parts of the country had access to a reliable power supply and could rebuild after the horrors of World War I.

By 1937, the national grid connected coal-fired power stations in Newcastle, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, London and Glasgow.

Homes and businesses received networked power for the first time, switching from town gas (manufactured gas fuels) and oil.

Growing national demand for power

The electricity industry was nationalised in 1947, amid cold winters. Electricity use was rationed as coal supplies were low.

Engineers had to increase production. Talks began with France to build an interconnector to share supply.

The growing national demand for power resulted in the construction of a 275kV supergrid around the UK. And, in 1957, the Central Electricity Generating Board was established to ‘keep the lights on’.

During this time, engineers worked together to deliver over 4000 miles (about 6437 km) of power lines and connections, changing the landscape with pylons striding across our horizon.

From the 1960s onwards, larger power stations were built closer to natural resources (coal and oilfields).

electricity pylons
Our landscape changed with pylons now striding across the horizon. Image credit: Shutterstock

Emergence of nuclear

The emergence of nuclear power began a hunt for suitable sites next to plentiful water supplies.

The rapid development of technology saw the first nuclear power station switched on in 1962.

This was a tremendous achievement for Britain’s engineers, who led the world in nuclear technology development.

Continual disruption to coal and oil supplies in the 50s and 60s influenced the government to massively invest in building nuclear power stations.

Even today, our nuclear resource provides 15-20% of our power needs.

The rise of central heating

With the discovery and mass exploitation of North Sea gas in the 1970s, engineers were also able to access, transport and distribute vast amounts of natural gas.

Central heating became a ‘must have’ household luxury.

The latter end of the 20th century saw engineers build a national gas grid supplying most of the country with heat and power.

Our reliance on gas became almost complete as it was three times cheaper than electricity and markets around the world were competing to supply.

We started to burn gas instead of coal in our power stations and stopped mining coal. This resulted in a need to import our supplies from Poland and further afield.

Privatisation of electricity and gas

There were still issues with supply, blackouts and inefficient infrastructure.

The government sold off energy generation companies from 1986, allowing private companies to supply to the national grids.

To support this privatisation, the government pioneered the introduction of electricity and gas markets thus requiring power generators to compete to supply and to secure the best rates for customers.

Going green

For years, our energy prices have been amongst the lowest in the world in relation to our income and, as a nation, we’ve been wasteful.

Furthermore, low cost has meant that we haven’t had to think about energy efficiency to conserve this precious resource.

Increasing awareness of the environmental impact of fossil fuel emissions and understanding that these resources are finite has led the government to support companies in developing and supplying ‘green’ energy.

Initially, through a Renewable Obligations Scheme (2002), which supported subsidies for the development of renewable energy schemes such as wind and solar.

These have been so successful that wind and solar can now compete with oil and gas prices and the subsidies for this energy are no longer needed.

wind turbine solar panels
The government has supported companies in developing and supplying green energy. Image credit: Shutterstock

Fragile network

Storms Arwen and Eunice in 2021/2 demonstrated how fragile our energy supply networks are and how little back up we have when central network power supplies are cut off.

They also highlighted problems around switching to an electrically based society, as electric cars couldn’t charge, and heating and health systems didn’t work.

The war in Ukraine has been blamed for increasing gas prices around the world.

However, it also coincided with the government removing the energy price cap from supply companies, who could then charge much higher prices, regardless of global pressures.

Record profits have been made and many questions asked about our current model for incentivising energy generation, transmission and distribution in the UK.

The energy crisis

We’ve seen how it’s those that can least afford to pay that experience the greatest disadvantage when supplies are lost, or prices rise.

Much of the recent energy crisis has been caused by limited economic models that aren’t designed for global political actions.

Also, there’s not enough focus on investment in our energy infrastructure from our privatised supply contracts.

heating energy crisis
Many questions have been asked about our current model for incentivising energy generation, transmission and distribution in the UK. Image credit: Shutterstock

Progress on renewables is too slow

Because of the lack of capacity and investment in the national network, connections to new sources of renewable energy can take years to complete.

Technology to capture energy from wind and solar, the ‘intermittent’ supplies, is still under development.

Geothermal, tidal and hydro are also underexploited options for continual and reliable energy supplies.

The use and geographic location of rare earth minerals to support the green energy industry is also a whole new environmental and political consideration.

The pollution impacts of switching to non-carbon based fuels such as hydrogen also need to be thought of.

Will green energy be any more sustainable?

Where do we go from here?

So what can we do now to reduce carbon emissions, sustain our standard of living and avert future crises?

As engineers, we need to continue to innovate in the infrastructure solutions that we deliver.

We need to build networks that benefit local and regional communities and that can withstand storms and disruption, maintaining regional and local supplies.

We need to keep the lights on.

Civil engineers need to be involved in discussions

We need to engage in, contribute to and influence discussions around the economic models for energy supply.

We must ensure that these systems are fair, responsive and meet the aims of the low carbon transition.

We also need to collaborate in lobbying the government for increased investment in renewable energy generation and infrastructure capacity and resilience.

The skills and talent of the future

We continue to produce some of the best engineers in the world.

We must harness their innovation and imagination on how to deliver solutions faster and at a scale that will meet the demands of global climate deadlines.

We need the knowledge and skills to understand the complexity around our future energy needs and ensure that the whole life cycle of a project is considered and integrated.

Our current energy transition will require civil engineers to play a major role, both politically and technically.

It will be exciting, but it’s also a time to exercise all of our skills, innovation and influence.

  • Jacki Bell, ICE Low Carbon Energy Community Advisory Board member and research network manager at Durham University