Balance of power

The return of protesting convoys of trucks to the UK’s roads shows that the price of energy is back at the top of the national agenda.

A few weeks ago the nation was bombarded with the intricacies of the inter-bank lending rate as the credit crunch hogged the headlines.

There is nothing much engineers can do about the international financial markets, so on this occasion the cry of ‘something must be done’ was directed at the pinstriped suit brigade and the government.

The pain at the fuel pumps is a different matter, however.

As my colleague Jon Excell pointed out in this Newsletter last week, one of the upsides of the current situation is increased demand for cheaper, more efficient vehicles. That should mean more support for those developing the technologies that will make those vehicles a reality.

The problem is one of patience, or rather the lack of it. As the price of fuel begins to bite into the budgets of even those who used to consider themselves comfortably off, the clamour will grow. ‘Where are our electric runabouts? Where are our fuel cell-powered SUVs?’

The answer to which is ‘some of them are here, more are on their way.’ When the development of vehicles that are less dependent on fossil fuels becomes an overwhelming political priority for the economies of the West, you can guarantee that the engineers and technologists with the ability to make it happen will find themselves centre stage and under pressure to deliver.

But patience will still be needed, because there are no quick fixes. In the meantime, we all need to get used to a fundamental power shift from the consumers of energy to its producers.

For the time being it is those who control the production of the world’s oil and gas who call the shots. All of them will remember the 1990s when oil was selling for a few dollars a barrel. Back then, their pleas for a few dollars more were met with a shrug from the consumers and the words ‘you can’t buck the market.’

As the price races up towards $150, you can visualise the responding shrug, and hear the murmurs of ‘what goes around, comes around.’

Andrew Lee