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Electricity’s role in times of crises: why we must tackle challenges of today, and tomorrow

Tom Greatrex

02 April 2020

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At the time of writing, a third of the world’s population is on some form of lockdown. With the SEC in Glasgow becoming one of the NHS emergency temporary hospitals and the focus of governments around the world on addressing the impact of the pandemic, then the decision announced last night to postpone COP26 until next year is hardly surprising.

To flatten the curve of COVID-19, many governments have advised or mandated their population to stay at home. Until further notice, these lives are being lived via screens: working, shopping, and largely, entertainment now require an internet connection.

Just as these circumstances have led to people assessing afresh their definition of key worker—and how valued they are by wider society—stable electricity is and will continue to be a critical part of the response to this crisis to keep society running. It is playing an indispensable role in safeguarding public health and upholding our infrastructure, and those working to generate and distribute that power are demonstrating that worth to society.

It’s true that with cars coming off the roads and factories temporarily closing, we may see CO₂ emissions fall in 2020—however, it is important to remember that dip will not be sustained, and when this emergency ends, we will still have another longer term crisis on our hands: climate change. So as much as postponing COP26 was probably inevitable, the need for a relentless and energetic focus on global action to reduce emissions can not be put off indefinitely.

As Fatih Birol, Executive Director at International Energy Agency, pointed out in a recent blog post, we must remain focused on both maintaining energy supply and achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“Governments are drawing up stimulus plans in an effort to counter the economic damage from the coronavirus,

“These stimulus packages offer an excellent opportunity to ensure that the essential task of building a secure and sustainable energy future doesn’t get lost amid the flurry of immediate priorities.”

He argues that clean energy must be at the heart of these stimulus plans,

“because it will bring the twin benefits of stimulating economies and accelerating clean energy transitions. The progress this will achieve in transforming countries’ energy infrastructure won’t be temporary – it can make a lasting difference to our future.”

Uniquely, nuclear power can offer a proven way of generating high volumes of always-on, low carbon power, alongside transformational economic benefits in jobs, growth and investment.  Nuclear power stations can, and do, deliver clean electricity reliably and consistently over a very long period of time, but nuclear can also contribute to district heating, hydrogen manufacture and production of synthetic low carbon fuels for aviation and shipping—helping to tackle the harder challenges inherent in meeting net zero.

Understandably, governments have their hands full tackling COVID-19 and its impacts, but this crisis should not put the environment on the backburner for long. We can and should tackle both, for the health of our people, prosperity and planet, which we now fully understand as being more interconnected than ever.  Nuclear power, renewables and innovations in flexible energy all have a role to play— and as we have been reminded in recent weeks, in emergencies action needs to be taken and decisions must be made.