Yesterday my mate Jeremy Smith (former editor of the Ecologist - so, a guy who knows his megawatts from his terrawatts) phoned on spec to see whether I'd be interested in joining him for a preview screening of a Peak Oil film and Q&A with the directors afterwards. Excellent, I said, I'm on my way. The film, A Crude Awakening, is to be released nationally on the 9th Nov.
So off I zooted to the Everyman cinema, fully expecting an audience of the great and good from Hampstead's energy royalty (David Strahan lives close by, as does Dr David Flemming, and the irascible Meyer Hillman - and given the size of some of the homes up on the hill, no doubt a whole clutch of oil magnates). Instead, it was a random audience made up of what seemed to be general passers by (that's how Jeremy happened to be invited - he was just walking along South Bank the previous evening). They were, we were promised, looking forward to a challenging debate in the Q &A session afterwards. Hmmm. If that was the case, where were the experts? This audience was largely comprised of concerned individuals picked randomly off the street.
Not wanting to spoil a good story, nevertheless let me tell you about my experience.
The first three quarters of the film has some stonking good footage of Baku oil fields and of a woman at her dressing table with all manner of things flying through the air (including her clothes!) to demonstrate what items are reliant on oil for their production. This and more is cut with various weighty talking heads from Colin Cambell to Matt Savinar (who seems to be in the process of future proofing himself with stacks of purified canned food boxed up behind him) to a range of retired oil experts, geologists, scientists and even some footage of Hubbert, the original whistleblower in the oil industry who predicted 50 years ago that oil would peak about now. The story of oil and our reliance on it is told - and told effectively.
But - it's a big but - the film then moves onto possible solutions, and wham! it seems to literally run out of energy. A slow trot through the (valid) problems with hydrogen, biomass, nuclear. Weirdly no mention of coal, and a petering out with a passing reference to solar. All a rather bleak picture which left most of the audience depressed and feeling rather hopeless.
So this was strange - a film made by a journalist who had clearly done his homework (after all that's what you do, isn't it, when you go off and make a film?) - to a certain extent, then stopped short of examining what possible solutions there out there. Well, if you have been following my blog, you know that one of my passions is Concentrating Solar Power, which to me seems to provide a huge solution. This wasn't touched on at all and I wanted to know why.
Before I even did so, it came up, and to my surprise a stock answer was given that I have often heard given before - one that often comes from oil men and nuclear supporters: that solar is the key, it's just too expensive and will take forty years of research and development. This is strange, simply because it is not correct.
Firstly, I pointed out, the technology is out there. It is mature, tried and tested technology that has been around for 30 years. Commercial-scale plants have been operating in California since the mid 1980s and are still supplying electricity to about 100,000 homes. (In fact, versions of CSP have been tried since the late 19th century, not counting Achimedes' attempts to set the Roman navy ablaze). There are also sites here in Europe (in Spain) and plants are due to be rolled out in various sunbelt countries. Electricity can be transmitted economically for three thousand kilometres or more via a Supergrid of HVDC of lines (on pylons or laid underground or under the sea). With this technology, transmission losses are no more than about 3% per 1000 km. Cost wise it is already looking to be cost-effective against the soaring oil prices (which as I write have now hit $96 per barrel - they say it will reach $100 by end of next year, but it looks set to be far sooner than that). It has been estimated that only 113 km x 113 km of desert covered in mirrors would supply all the electricity needs for the whole of Europe - that is, in desert terms, a tiny fraction of available space (and available sun). You can find out more at concentratingsolarpower.info and on the TREC-UK website.
"Well, hey what do I know, I'm just a journalist" was the response I got. Someone made the point that if such momentous a message is to be told they have a duty to give a happy ending. Maybe a happy ending is asking too much, but he had a point. At the very least a responsible examination of possible solutions would have been welcome.
Well, if they aren't prepared to do something about it I am. I leave for Seville today and the reason I am going there is to attend a conference on CSP. I want to know just how viable CSP is, just how big it can go and how soon. We need big solutions as well as small, and CSP could be just that. Watch this space - I will be reporting back live from the conference.
[photo credits of Baku oil fields: State Archives of Azerbaijan Republic, Stanley Greene, Sezin Aytuna, Mark Lewandowski]