Why Britain is on the brink of blackouts
Complacency and green virtue-signalling have wreaked havoc with our energy supplies.
Energy bills are soaring to dangerous heights in Britain. By April 2023, the energy price cap could even rise to over £5,000 for the average household. More alarming still, politicians have little to say on how energy costs can be brought down.
In the contest between Conservative prime-ministerial hopefuls Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, most of the debate has fixated on the relative merits of using tax cuts vs state benefits to ease the cost-of-living pressures. The outgoing Boris Johnson government has threatened to extend its windfall tax on energy companies. Meanwhile, Labour leader Keir Starmer has proposed freezing the price cap at its current level of £1,971, which would be paid for by an expanded windfall tax and scrapping the current government support on offer to households.
Whatever each proposal’s merits in easing the pain to consumers, none of them actually reckons with the actual problems driving sky-high energy prices. No one anywhere near power in Britain seems especially interested in doing what is necessary to guarantee an affordable, reliable and secure supply of energy.
Any policy aimed at lowering energy prices must start with the question of energy supply. Most critical to this is the supply of gas, which heats our homes, powers our industries and fuels nearly 40 per cent of UK electricity generation.
Action is needed right now. We need to start drilling for more North Sea gas and start fracking for shale gas across the UK. And we need to start building new nuclear power stations – including small modular reactors. None of these options will come online fast enough to make a difference this winter – but we should be doing everything we can to avoid prolonging this crisis.
Besides, whenever politicians do touch on the issue of supply, they tend to put going green above questions of speed and reliability. Building more wind turbines would take far longer than extracting gas we can then use in existing power plants and boilers. Besides, the energy wind turbines provide can only ever be intermittent, which means we will still need more gas at our disposal to use as a back-up source of power. Renewable energy cannot solve this crisis.
Meanwhile, proposals to reduce our use of gas and electricity, via home insulation and swapping boilers with heat pumps, will take even more time and expense. An estimated 19million homes are said to have inadequate insulation, and fixing this will not be easy or cheap. Meanwhile, only a tiny number of households are interested in installing heat pumps – even government grants worth up to £6,000 have been largely shunned by the public.
What matters most is increasing our supply of gas, especially in the event that Russia cuts off its gas supplies to Europe. Though Britain imports far less Russian gas than most countries on the continent, the shock this would cause to the global market will affect us, too.
But instead of putting all our energies into securing more supply, the UK authorities would prefer us to start rationing our gas and electricity use. Officials are already drawing up plans for so-called load shedding – that is, organised blackouts for prolonged time periods, as is already happening in South Africa. Such rationing cannot just be excused as a short-term response to an acute crisis. Over the longer run, the UK government has presided over the managed decline of our energy supplies.
As well as failing to produce enough home-grown gas, successive governments have made it harder to buy and store gas from abroad. In the UK, we store just one per cent of our annual demand for gas, while Germany, Italy and France store a quarter to a third of theirs.
It has been, until recently, a deliberate UK policy to shut down gas-storage facilities, and to instead rely on up-to-the moment supplies from the global market. There is now discussion in government about reviving the Rough storage facility in east Yorkshire, closed down back in 2017. We need to not only revive facilities like this, but also to build more like it, so that we can store enough gas away to fuel power stations and avoid blackouts, even in the event of supply shocks.
It will cost a lot to import gas, and to have the facilities in place to support this, but this will at least buy us time to move towards extracting more indigenous gas and building more nuclear-power stations.
Just as urgent as extracting more gas and finding ways to store it is fixing how we transport gas to where it is needed. Britain’s gas network is far from robust. Last October in Ayrshire, Scotland, four homes were destroyed by a corroded gas pipe. And only last week, an explosion tore through a house in Thornton Heath, London, killing a four-year-old girl, sending three people to hospital and forcing 100 people to be evacuated from their homes.
Given the general state of Britain’s fast-decaying infrastructure, we have every reason to believe the networks that move gas around the country are creaking. Worse still, some of the players involved suggest we can’t expect major improvements anytime soon. In March, the National Grid agreed to sell a 60 per cent equity interest in National Grid Gas, its UK gas transmission and metering business, for a ‘consideration’ of £2.2 billion in cash. One of the main buyers was Macquarie, the Australian bank that owns a lot of Britain’s water industry – a sector beset by infrastructural failings and underinvestment. If our water woes are anything to go by, then the safe, reliable gas grid we need is a long way away.
Little is likely to change until we start making a robust defence not only of gas but also of energy use more broadly. We should not have to tolerate high energy and heating bills. Nor should we be nudged into turning down the heating, putting on a jumper or turning off the lights to reduce our use of energy this winter. Nor in hot summers should we be frowned on for buying fans and air conditioners.
Fixing our energy supply – ensuring it is cheap, secure and reliable – must be the priority. Learning to live with blackouts is not an option.
James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University.
Picture by: Getty.
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