The Big Smoke

Gaelectric CEO Brendan McGrath calls for strong action to tackle fossil fuels, drawing on the example of the fight against tobacco, and explains how energy storage offers a practical and effective way forward.

In 1954, the tobacco industry paid to publish the ‘Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers’ in hundreds of US newspapers. It stated that the health of the public was the industry’s concern above all others and promised a variety of “good faith” changes. What followed were decades of deceit and actions that cost millions of lives.

The tobacco industry had a play book, the script that emphasised personal responsibility, paying scientists who delivered research that instilled doubt, criticising the ‘junk science’ that found harms associated with smoking, making self-regulatory pledges, lobbying with massive resources to stymie government action, introducing supposedly safer products, and simultaneously manipulating and denying the addictive nature of their products.

The industry wanted desperately to prevent or at least delay shifts in public opinion that would permit a barrage of legislative, regulatory and legal actions that would erode sales and profits.

We need now to debate the parallels between tobacco and fossil fuels in the context of culpability for public health, and also the health of the world we live in and the creatures that inhabit it.

There are, of course, differences between tobacco and the fossil fuel industry. The most obvious is that modern society needs energy to sustain life whereas the unnecessary activity of smoking is “slow motion suicide”. Moreover, selling tobacco to children is illegal. And, although the fight against tobacco coalesced around a single product made by few companies, fossil fuels and their related industries are far more complex.

Climate science
On his recent visit to Ireland, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned: “For too long, the response to climate change has been hindered by entrenched interests, national interests and those who question science.” He added that science has made it simply clear that climate change is happening because of human behaviour: “Nature does not negotiate, nature does not wait. Nature goes on its own path. It is us – we have to adjust ourselves to this changing situation.”

He added that action on climate change is not inconsistent with economic progress and the moral case is clear: “Putting our economies on a low carbon pathway will create new markets, provide energy security and improve our health … The world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries are the first to be impacted because they don’t have any capacity to mitigate and adapt.”

The fossil fuel industry stands at a crossroads where one path would mean fighting change, defending practices and forestalling policy change. The other road requires reworking, working with the public health community, and embracing renewable alternatives with greater urgency. Adapting the first path while laying claim to the second path was the option taken by the tobacco industry. The fossil fuel industry has arrived at the same crossroads. This time, history is repeating itself but this time with more drastic universal results.
Until recently, the electricity grid relied on centralised, mostly fossil fuel power plants to meet electricity demand. The emergence of affordable clean electricity presents a serious threat to an industry that has operated largely in the same way since Thomas Edison turned on the first investor-owned power station in 1882. Evidence is now appearing of utilities attempting to charge extra fees to ratepayers who install rooftop solar panels and campaigns to weaken net metering policies as part of a long-term strategy to address business competition from distributed energy generation such as solar and wind.

The case for storage
One of the big arguments that fossil fuel and utility interests have used against the wind and solar energy is: “What happens when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine?” This is where energy storage – the missing link up to now – comes in but not just as a rudimentary repository to dump excess power and pour it out when needed. Rather, storage projects that can also provide the services to support energy systems in becoming more sustainable, secure, efficient and cost-effective.

The Larne Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES) project is one such project. It is unique to Northern Ireland and will provide bulk, grid-level storage that is responsive, safe and effective and which supports the integration of Northern Ireland’s renewable energy resource. It will be the third CAES plant globally and the first to be commercially optimised for the integration of high levels of wind energy. It has the capability to provide a majority of the services under consideration in the SONI/EirGrid DS3 programme which will define the system services needed for the continuous, secure operation of the power system with increasing levels of renewable energy.
The Larne CAES project will have significant innovation value and will also play an important demonstrator role for future CAES projects elsewhere in Europe. This is Northern Ireland’s project: unique to region, essential for iSEM, and a showcase for Europe.

A recipe for action
1.     Europe must lead
2.     Converge interests with the rest of Europe
3.     Replace cap and trade with a carbon tax
4.     Stop fossil fuel subsidies
5.     Expose vested interests
6.     No coal in Europe in five years
7.     No oil in Europe in 10 years
8.     No gas in Europe in 20 years
9.     Advance and encourage new technologies
10.    See fossil fuel as the killer that it is

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