Energy Security, according to Wikipedia, is ”a term for an association between national security and the availability of natural resources for energy consumption. Access to cheap energy has become essential to the functioning of modern economies. However, the uneven distribution of energy supplies among countries has led to significant vulnerabilities.” Therefore, Transport Security can be thought of as a subset of energy security; the relationship between the essential role transport plays in the functioning of modern economies and the availability of the resources required by said transport. In 2005, transport accounted for approximately 35% of UK energy consumption.
The transport security of a country is dependent on several factors, including:
- Transport mode mix
- Transport infrastructure
- Energy infrastructure
- Energy prices & domestic resources
- State intervention
- Density of development
The UK’s transport is currently dominated by one mode; the private car. This domination is a result of several decades of car-favouring infrastructure design, preferential state investment in car infrastructure, state subsidy of the external costs arising from driving and low energy prices. These factors have enabled the private car to become the dominant mode of passenger transport in the UK, despite the significant inefficiency of the private car compared to other transport modes. These factors have had a significant effect the density and nature of both new residential and commercial developments and wreaked havoc on those which were constructed prior to the dominance of the private car. Building preferentially for the private car has also led to road freight becoming the dominant means of moving goods around in the UK (85% in 1998)
The continued decline in the UK’s North Sea oil production has led to it becoming a net importer of crude oil, and the price of fossil fuel-derived energy is set to continue rising. Changing the energy source of cars from burning fossil fuels to battery-electric is often mooted as a solution by both the motor lobby and the government, which has given generous subsidies to the manufacturers and buyers of electric cars. Whilst frequently mooted as a solution to the UK’s transport woes, electric cars have a number of the same problems as conventionally fuelled cars; inefficient use of space (especially in urban areas) detrimental effect on other transport modes, negative health effects to their operators and passengers arising from the sedentary lifestyle facilitated by car dependence and the death or injury of operators, passengers and third parties through improper use.
At present in the UK, electric cars also have a number of problems distinct from conventionally-fuelled cars; much of the UK’s electricity-generation infrastructure is fossil fuel-based and vulnerable to much the same pressures on price as conventionally-fuelled cars and at the time of writing, much of the UK’s electricity generating capacity is due to be retired in the next few years. Whilst there are advantages to burning fossil fuels in facilities away from large population centres rather than within them, the issue of the need to replace much of the UK’s electricity generating infrastructure in the near future (referred to as the ‘energy gap‘) is a major hurdle to shifting cars from their reliance on the inefficient use of fossil fuel-derived energy to the inefficient use of electrical energy. Put simply, a large scale renewal of existing electricity generating capacity taking place at the same time building the expansion in generating capacity required to shift much of the 35% of energy expenditure arising from transport to electricity would represent a significant challenge, especially considering the UK’s emissions targets.
This puts the UK at a cross-roads with regards to its future transport security. There are several realistic possibilities:
- Significantly expand, diversify and de-carbonise electricity generating capacity at the same time as replacing much of the existing, fossil fuel-based generation capacity. This will allow personal transport to shift from its current car-dependent form reliant on the inefficient use of direct fossil fuel-derived to a similar car-dependent form reliant on the inefficient use of (cheap) non-fossil fuel-derived electricity. This option does nothing to address the other problems arising from a car-dominated transport system (discussed above) and has the further disadvantage of not offerring any realistic prospect of significant future expansion, due to space constraints. A transport mix heavily dominated by a single mode is also less resilient to unforeseen future stresses.
- Replace the electricity generating capacity which is due for renewal without the significant expansion required for a move to electric cars whilst investing in infrastructure required to diversify the transport mix. This can be done by investing in infrastructure which favours more efficient modes of transport, such as walking, cycling and rail. This has the added advantage of addressing some of the issues arising from a car-dominated transport system (discussed above) and has the further advantage of offering a realistic prospect of significant future expansion, due to more efficient use of space. A more diverse transport mix is also more resilient to unforeseen future stresses.
- Replace the electricity generating capacity which is due for renewal without the significant expansion required for a move to electric cars, without investing in infrastructure required to diversify the transport mix. Transport will continue to be dominated by the private, fossil fuel-powered car for the foreseeable future. This option does nothing to address the problems arising from a (fossil fuel-powered) car-dominated transport system (discussed above) has the further disadvantage of not offerring any realistic prospect of significant future expansion, due to space constraints and leaves the majority of UK transport (and the economic activity reliant on it) dependent on imported fuels, vulnerable to price spikes and fluctuations in availability. As in option 1, a transport mix heavily reliant on a single mode is less resilient to unforeseen stresses than a diverse transport mix.
In the past, the UK’s North Sea oil reserves and established electricity generating capacity had given the UK the luxury of choosing whether to address the issue of its future transport security or do nothing. Naturally when given this choice, doing nothing is the easiest choice, even if it has significant drawbacks. In the next few years, the UK will be at the point where something has to be done as a matter of urgency. I just hope that we put the work in now to diversify both our transport and electricity generation mixes to ensure transport security in the long-term.