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Here Be Dragons

The Eclipse May Have Been Crap But What It Told Us About Our Future Is Great

Today, a solar eclipse had a slight chance of fucking up our power grid – and that's a really great thing, because it means that we're slowly starting to wean ourselves off oil.

What a good eclipse looks like. Wiki Commons.

"Under a clear morning sky on the 20th of March 2015, some 35,000 MW of solar energy, which is the equivalent of nearly 80 medium size conventional generation units, will gradually fade from Europe's electrical system before being gradually re-injected: all in the space of two hours while Europeans and their offices begin a normal working week day."

That poetic announcement this week, from the catchily named "European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity", showed how far we've come since Britain's last eclipse in 1999, when the main threat to electricity supplies was the Millennium Bug, back when experts didn't have to warn people about taking "eclipse selfies".


Today, a solar eclipse had a slight chance of fucking up our power grid – and that's a really great thing, because it means that we're slowly starting to wean ourselves off oil.

Not that everyone's ready to break the addiction. Andrew Neil made a comment that raised a few eyebrows on Monday about peak oil. "Saudi Arabia could produce oil at current levels without new discoveries for 63 years. So much for peak oil theory."

Saudi Arabia could produce oil at current levels without new discoveries for 63 years. So much for peak oil theory.

— Andrew Neil (@afneil)March 16, 2015

Actually the "myth" of peak oil is a regular theme of his, like some part of his brain can't deal with the stuff that fuelled the Baby Boomer generation running out. Everything's fine, you see. No seriously man, everything is fucking fine.

Firstly, Neil's confused about his terms. Peak oil isn't when the oil runs out, it's the time when supply, well, peaks. There's still oil in the ground but it gets harder and harder to reach, slowing down production and driving up the cost, which in turn makes people buy less of it. Drilling might carry on for years after the peak, but the amount we get and actually use will follow a long, steady decline.

Second, unless you believe that oceans of oil literally appear magically out of rocks, there is a finite amount of it and peak oil will come sooner or later. (Inevitably, a load of people do believe exactly that, the so-called "abiotic oil theory," but they're idiots so let's move on.) Whether it comes in six years or 60 years doesn't really matter to the theory, though at 63 years old it probably does matter to Andrew Neil.


So the only question is when peak oil will hit. And the answer is… we're basically already there. It's been masked because there's been a huge shale oil boom in the US in the last few years. As the Financial Times pointed out last month, if you leave out American shale oil, the global supply actually fell over the last 10 years.

Now you may say, "so what?" Shale oil is still oil and overall supply went up, right? Well yes and no. The problem is, shale oil is incredibly expensive to get at, and US producers have to constantly build new rigs and infrastructure to get at the deposits. That only makes sense when oil prices are high, so you'll still make a profit even with all that expense – and prices go up when the supply from elsewhere falls. The whole shale oil boom is basically industrial denial – it only makes sense as a desperate race to keep oil supplies afloat.

Peak oil is happening now or soon, according to pretty much every expert on the planet. There's no plausible scenario that has it later than about 2030.

Measuring the exact point that it happens isn't easy for a whole bunch of reasons – we don't have perfect information about what's in the ground for a start, and a lot of the people involved in production have a vested interest in keeping things positive. It may be in ten years, it may be this year, it may have already happened. It'll probably be clearer in hindsight, but at this point it doesn't matter that much.


Pumpjacks on an oil field. Wiki Commons.

Of course for baby boomers brought up on cars and fumes, that's a terrifying prospect. For people of a certain age, cars and petrol were associated with freedom, and having a social life. In 2015, that just isn't true any more. If anything cars are a total pain in the arse – dangerous, labour intensive, hard to park, incredibly expensive and frustrating to drive on our crowded streets. Trains and taxis are more comfortable, and you can dick about on your iPhone instead of creeping along behind some guy's rear bumper. In 1965, cars were your gateway to the world. In 2015 it's the iPhone, and you can't stare at a screen and drive at the same time.

In fact it's amazing how quaint the era of petrol cars seems. The whir of Teslas has drowned out the roar of the V8, and in the next several years self-driving cars from Apple and Google could be trundling along our motorways. The truth is, we've fallen out of love with driving. Never mind peak oil, peak car has already happened in the UK – in fact the amount we drive started to drop about 10-15 years ago.

If cars no longer mean freedom, the same is even more true for petrol. The quest for oil to put in our cars has caused conflict, propped up oppressive regimes, and polluted vast swathes of our own environment. The hundreds of billions being spent on oil and gas exploration look like the desperate scrabbling of a drug addict hunting down the back of a sofa.


The solar eclipse wasn't that impressive here in Maidenhead, a desolate town of pound shops and cheap-suited Tories and shit clubs opened by Gareth Gates, where concrete buildings merge seamlessly into grey oppressive skies and the only Sun you'll see was left on the seat of a bus. But still, looking up and imagining the impact a solar eclipse was having on our new, clean energy supply felt pretty good.


More UK news:

The 11 Most Spectacular Eclipse Photos from London

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