Nature has once again put our world into perspective with the most powerful force on this planet – that of the Earth’s grinding tectonic plates – sparking the scenes of devastation that recently unfolded in Japan.
More vulnerable than we realised, the combination of earthquake and tsunami rendered at least one nuclear power plant in a dangerous situation, leading the world to question, yet again, the wisdom of developing an ongoing dependency on such a seemingly fearsome technology.
It is also another stark lesson about how we should never underestimate the power of nature.
This was the subject of much debate when the threat of a North Sea tsunami hitting Scotland was investigated some years ago.
Research focused on the subsea Storegga landslides offshore Norway that generated waves many metres high which struck the east coast of Scotland about 8,000 years ago.
Three Storegga slides triggered a huge tsunami in the North Atlantic, which saw the collapse of around 290km of coastal shelf.
Evidence of the tsunami was recorded in Scotland, with deposited sediment discovered in the Montrose Basin and the Firth of Forth, up to 80km inland and four metres above normal current sea level.
The chances of another tsunami occurring were addressed when the Ormen Lange subsea natural gas development was planned in the area of the landslide off Norway.
Studies made public in 2004 concluded that gas field development would not significantly increase the risk of another landslide.
It is believed that the Storegga landslides were a direct effect of re-stabilisation after rapid sea level rise at the end of the last glaciation period; such events are unlikely to happen here again until after the next glacial period.
However, this is not certain. No matter how unlikely, the recurrence of a similar event would have devastating consequences for the nations around the North Sea.
There is also potential for major landslide events in the Atlantic, to the south of the UK, to cause a tsunami affecting the south and western seaboards of our islands.
The impact of such forces of nature, combined with our increasing reliance on technology to function, can be debated endlessly, but the reality is that every source of energy carries its price in terms of impact on the environment, and the more we use the more unacceptable this will become.
Ultimately there is no such thing as “clean” energy. Wave, tidal, hydro and wind all have a direct impact on their surroundings and initially require their own large energy budgets to derive the raw materials from mining and oil extraction.
Burning coal, oil and gas releases large amounts of fossil greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, creating a potentially dangerous legacy, while burning of recyclable biomass and biofuels competes for food production and alters the earth’s ecosystem.
The underlying problem is the assumption that limitless supplies of energy can be found to satisfy exponential increases in energy demand.
Regardless of renewable energy being seemingly inexhaustible, it is not logical, nor possible, in the long run for mankind to continue to develop in this way. It is time to use technology to develop without increasing our overall energy requirements.
Until we have this under control we need to start to make some quick hits on a number of fronts, including the use of renewables. There is no single “golden bullet”.
Another key approach is to reduce CO (carbon dioxide) emissions from power derived from fossil fuels.
Nuclear is an obvious choice but the investments are huge, with lead times of decades, and the ethics behind leaving a radioactive legacy for many generations are questionable.
Nuclear plants are commonly coastal and, with Britain having experienced a significant tsunami during the last 10,000 years, how sure can we be that we are “safe” from unforeseen events?
Compare this with carbon capture and storage (CCS). While investment costs are high, lead times are less than a decade and the expertise required is merely an extension of that which exists in the oil & gas industry.
Of course, there are some risks and uncertainties associated with this technology, but they are relatively benign compared with the nuclear industry.
It is not the ultimate solution but it is a very exciting opportunity to provide a transition mechanism for moving to a more stable energy regime.
Senergy, the company I work for, has built its business on the back of oil & gas exploitation, but we see a future world fuelled on a very different and more diverse basis.
We want to be part of that change and through our leading edge electrical and power engineering expertise we are developing a position in renewables.
CCS is also a very natural step and we are involved in a wide variety of CO storage projects around the world.
While the oil & gas industry continues to focus on its core business, companies such as Senergy, with their rich oil & gas heritage, are fast becoming key facilitators in the transfer of knowledge and expertise to a whole new industry which is set to boom in the coming decades, and which will help the world achieve a balanced energy portfolio for a sustainable future.
Henry Allen is head of business sustainability at Senergy.
Senergy geologist Dr Mark Raistrick is one of the speakers participating in All-Energy’s conference sessions on CCS.
On May 18 he will present: Climbing the pyramid; reducing uncertainty in CO storage potential in the Southern North Sea. A study for National Grid