None of the Big Three have ever had a decent strategy for dealing with this issue but, rest assured, any government that presides over the kind of structured black-outs that are being predicted is not going to get re-elected in a long time. The last time the lights went out was in the 70s, and people survived, of course: the trouble is that, unlike the 1970s, everything—everything—is now run by computers. If the power starts going off, business will grind to a halt and we might as well wave goodbye to any thoughts of prosperity.
Which is why certain sections of the Conservative/LibDem Agreement have got me slightly worried.
The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to fulfil our joint ambitions for a low carbon and eco-friendly economy, including:
- The establishment of a smart grid and the roll-out of smart meters.
- The full establishment of feed-in tariff systems in electricity – as well as the maintenance of banded ROCs.
- Measures to promote a huge increase in energy from waste through anaerobic digestion.
- The creation of a green investment bank.
- The provision of home energy improvement paid for by the savings from lower energy bills.
- Retention of energy performance certificates while scrapping HIPs.
- Measures to encourage marine energy.
- The establishment of an emissions performance standard that will prevent coal-fired power stations being built unless they are equipped with sufficient CCS to meet the emissions performance standard.
- The establishment of a high-speed rail network.
- The cancellation of the third runway at Heathrow.
- The refusal of additional runways at Gatwick and Stansted.
- The replacement of the Air Passenger Duty with a per flight duty.
- The provision of a floor price for carbon, as well as efforts to persuade the EU to move towards full auctioning of ETS permits.
- Measures to make the import or possession of illegal timber a criminal offence.
- Measures to promote green spaces and wildlife corridors in order to halt the loss of habitats and restore biodiversity.
- Mandating a national recharging network for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.
- Continuation of the present Government’s proposals for public sector investment in CCS technology for four coal-fired power stations; and a specific commitment to reduce central government carbon emissions by 10 per cent within 12 months.
- We are agreed that we would seek to increase the target for energy from renewable sources, subject to the advice of the Climate Change Committee.
Liberal Democrats have long opposed any new nuclear construction. Conservatives, by contrast, are committed to allowing the replacement of existing nuclear power stations provided they are subject to the normal planning process for major projects (under a new national planning statement) and provided also that they receive no public subsidy.
We have agreed a process that will allow Liberal Democrats to maintain their opposition to nuclear power while permitting the government to bring forward the national planning statement for ratification by Parliament so that new nuclear construction becomes possible.
This process will involve:
- the government completing the drafting of a national planning statement and putting it before Parliament;
- specific agreement that a Liberal Democrat spokesman will speak against the planning statement, but that Liberal Democrat MPs will abstain; and
- clarity that this will not be regarded as an issue of confidence.
None of this is very encouraging. CCS (carbon capture and storage) has never actually been implemented properly, and one of the biggest tests—that in Norway—has now been delayed (probably indefinitely).
As we all know, renewables simply won't generate enough consistent electricity and the concept of micro-generation feed-in is total pie-in-the-sky without a substantial re-engineering of the entire National Grid.
At the moment, there are only three options if you want to keep the lights on in this country*—coal, gas or nuclear power stations.
So, the agreement above would be worrying enough, even had Chris Huhne not now been appointed Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. And Professor Philip Stott regards this not as a problem but a disaster.
The lamentable fact that David Cameron has appointed Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrat MP for Eastleigh, Hampshire, as the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, underscores one’s profoundest fears that our leading politicians have still still not grasped, despite all the red flag warnings, the depth and urgency of the UK energy crisis. This, after all, is the man who is avowedly opposed to the development of a new generation of nuclear powers stations, who believes that we can fill our looming energy gap with wave, wind, and waffle, and who is totally uncritical of the ‘global warming’ message.
But the whole point is that we, as a country, have long run out of time on energy regeneration, and our energy security is already seriously compromised and under threat.
In The Ultimate Resource II, Julian Simon, Professor of Business Administration at the University of Maryland, described energy as the “master resource”, arguing that, “if the cost of usable energy is low enough, all other important resources can be made plentiful.”
Dieter Helm, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Oxford, concluded recently that the UK is only six years away from an energy crisis. Indeed, for over twenty years, politicians of all hues have failed drastically to confront our declining energy security, blinded by the flow of North Sea oil and gas.
Under the three post-1997 Labour Governments, the situation was willfully allowed to deteriorate. The turnover in Energy Ministers was criminal, involving eleven in all. Likewise, responsibility for energy policy has been regularly shifted since 1992, from the Department of Energy to the Department of Trade and Industry, then to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and, finally to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, created in 2008, a title which, sadly, David Cameron has allowed to stand. Inexorably, there has been one wishy-washy energy ‘White Paper’ after another, each trying to pick an ‘energy winner’, coupled with dithering over what to do about coal-fired plants and the replacement of ageing nuclear facilities, all debilitated by hand-wringing over the need for ‘renewables’, such as wind, to meet politically-set climate-change targets.
It can only get much worse under Chris Huhne. I can’t believe we have ended up in his hands on this crucial issue.
What Must Be Done, Now
The result of all this has been a near-fatal undermining of future electricity-generating capacity so that we are facing a disastrous energy gap. We used to be able to survive on 65 GW; to meet peak demand safely, this must rise from 70 GW to 90-100 GW by 2020.
There is no further leeway for delay. Unfortunately, as Helm has noted: “Unless reform is quick, the best hope for Britain's energy supply from a security perspective is that the economy does not recover quickly - a long hard Japanese-style recession would keep demand (and carbon emissions) low. But that's hardly a sound energy policy.”
Just so. Yet, the real, hard policies required are clear, and unavoidable, even if they might prove compromising for politicians hemmed in with utopian, ‘Through The Looking Glass’, climate-change rhetoric.
The Professor has a number of other sensible prescriptions, many of which regular readers will have heard before; if you haven't, I suggest that you head over there. And whatever your opinion on what should be done, it is difficult to argue with Stott's conclusion of what has been done.
Huhne’s appointment is absolutely extraordinary at the very moment when energy security and food security are the new politics across the world.
This appointment could prove disastrous for Britain. It is surely Cameron’s first major blunder.
Like coal, my anger is unabated. Time for tea, while I can still boil a kettle.
* Obviously, if you are a member of the Green Party, you can stop reading since we all know that you couldn't care less whether the lights stay on or not.