Energetic moves in the right direction

The Insight section in this issue of The Engineer features the Stealth rollercoaster, Europe’s tallest white-knuckle ride and a remarkable feat of engineering.


The Insight section in this issue of The Engineer features the Stealth rollercoaster, Europe’s tallest white-knuckle ride and a remarkable feat of engineering.

Rollercoaster and white-knuckle ride are terms that could equally be applied to the ups and downs of the energy markets, with oil and gas price rises steep enough to make businesses and consumers alike scream in terror, followed by sudden and equally dramatic plunges.

The message of the last few months seems to be that nobody knows what is going to happen next. Not the energy industry itself, not governments and not the pinstriped crystal-ball gazers of the financial markets.

For example, one hedge fund bet the farm that gas prices would go on soaring. Instead they went into reverse and left the hapless moneymen nursing losses of $6bn (well, if you play with fire etc).

Of more concern to most people is the uncertainty these fluctuations cause in the real economy. From pensioners struggling to pay their winter fuel bills to companies suddenly finding their financial forward planning wrecked by steep energy costs, the ramifications are felt by us all.

Unfortunately, it seems that instability and uncertainty are set to become par for the course in our increasingly globalised energy markets. One show of muscle by suppliers or a single unexpected change of government in a sensitive energy producing region can set off a chain reaction that causes havoc around the world.

Is there anything we can do about this, and can technology help?

The Engineer is not greatly given to gambling (unlike our unfortunate hedge fund) but is willing to make a modest wager that ‘energy self-sufficiency’ will shoot up the list of priorities for industry and consumers alike over the next few years.

The process has already started. The government has cited security of supply as a major plus point for a nuclear new-build programme for the UK. At the other end of the spectrum, high street DIY chains are selling wind turbines alongside barbecues and garden furniture.

In between there will be an array of technologies designed to restore control and stability to the process by which energy is produced and consumed. More industrial sites will look for ways to generate more of their own power and reduce their exposure to the caprices of energy prices.

Energy efficiency will move from being a nice add-on to a central plank of corporate strategy. Capital expenditure on energy-saving measures will be seen as money well spent if it results in a downturn in those fearsome energy bills.

Of course, much of this chimes rather well with the environmental rules and regulations facing businesses. Technologies that can help companies and consumers to do their bit for the environment while saving money may well be the geese that lay the golden eggs of the next decade.