Britain’s energy policy: no light or heat
Claims that the UK might soon be plunged into blackout are bonkers – but we really do need a future-orientated energy policy.
‘Risk of UK blackouts has tripled in a year, Ofgem warns’, declared the Telegraph. ‘NHS hospitals asked to generate own power amid blackouts fears’, reported the Guardian. Scary stuff. Is Britain heading for a dark age?
As is often the case, the headlines don’t do justice to the facts. A considerable slice of the UK’s energy-generating capacity – chiefly older coal-powered plants – is going to be taken offline soon due to EU rules on carbon emissions. The shortfall will come because replacement plants have not yet been built. But the gloomy predictions come from a scenario in which the UK has a peak in energy demand at a point where imports are unavailable through the connector to mainland Europe. Even in this situation, energy regulator Ofgem’s analysis suggests a once-in-12-year risk of some customers being deprived of power because we don’t produce enough to meet high demand.
As Ofgem’s report notes, these transient shortfalls are manageable and will have much less impact than the normal blackouts as a result of power-supply problems caused, for example, by bad weather knocking out powerlines. ‘The most likely implications are small, occasional shortfalls which could be dealt with by National Grid through demand-side action, with little or no impact on customers. The annual loss of supplies arising from transmission and distribution outages is typically more than three times this amount.’
If the government and energy companies pull their collective fingers out, even the risk described above by Ofgem need only exist over the period 2015 to 2017. After that, new power supplies will come on-stream, and the nation’s spare capacity will rise again.
However, we should not even be talking about such scenarios. It is blindingly obvious that a modern, developed country like the UK should be able to cope with a very broad range of energy demand and have plenty of spare capacity. Without that availability, large electricity users will start to resort to creating their own back-up supplies at considerable expense or even have to reduce their energy demand – and, as a result, their production, whether that is churning out aluminium or operating on patients.
The energy-supply problem, however, illustrates many unwelcome trends in the Western world today. If we don’t tackle them more generally, we may have bigger problems than the odd night sitting in candlelight.
First, there is the fetishisation of sustainability. While money pours into expensive and unreliable renewable energy, like wind and solar, we have turned our backs on relatively cheap and reliable coal- and gas-powered generation (and more expensive but ‘clean’ and reliable nuclear energy, too). The mission to ‘save the planet’, which has often been all that passes for a sense of purpose in the political class in recent years, is easy to pursue in rhetoric and legislation; unfortunately, it is then confronted by the realities of a modern economy.
The flipside of promoting sustainability is what spiked contributor Daniel Ben-Ami has called ‘growth scepticism’. It should be a no-brainer that to achieve the material progress that most of us desire, we would need affordable and predictable supplies of electricity. But it is now fashionable – particularly among the already comfortably off – to poo-poo the benefits of material wealth. We consume too much, we are told, and we should make do with less. In fact, our lives are not nearly comfortable enough.
And then there is the paralysis at the heart of government. Devoid of principles about how to move society forward – particularly the apparently old-fashioned desire to drive up living standards, which was once shared across the political spectrum – politicians have proven incapable of making decisions about basic, vital infrastructure. The threat of energy shortages has been known about for years, yet a framework of policy and funding to allow power stations to get built and energy supplied is still not in place.
Take the issue of nuclear power. Around a quarter of UK electricity was generated through nuclear power until recently; yet as old plants have been closed, getting agreement on building new power stations has not been easy. The previous Labour government was particularly culpable in this regard, slowly shifting from opposition to nuclear towards a position of tepid approval. In such circumstances, energy firms have, unsurprisingly, been unwilling to invest the billions of pounds required to build new power stations without cast-iron and potentially very expensive guarantees. (It looks like such deals may finally be on the verge of being completed.)
Another announcement last week illustrates the problem nicely. The British Geological Survey reported that the UK could be sitting on an enormous supply of shale gas – possibly enough to power the country for decades. It is still not clear to what extent this resource can be exploited commercially, but in a period when energy prices are rising, a rational response would be to explore shale possibilities without delay. Yet instead, we have had endless handwringing about greenhouse-gas emissions and scaremongering about pollution.
Claims that shale gas will slash energy bills in the way it has in the US are almost certainly as delusional as the idea that extracting it through ‘fracking’ will cause devastating earthquakes. But the promise of secure supplies and a handy boost to tax revenues for a fuel that produces fewer emissions than coal should surely make shale gas a no-brainer for the government. Sadly, that’s not the case in the messed-up world of British politics.
What we need desperately in the field of energy, as in so many aspects of modern life, is a sense of urgency about developing our productive potential, a more positive embrace of the benefits of economic growth, and an end to the mirage of ‘sustainable development’. Until then, the British economy, and British politics, is going nowhere.
Rob Lyons is commissioning editor at spiked.