When I launched UKIP’s energy policy statement at our Party Conference in October 2012, the front cover said “Rolling Blackouts by 2020? UKIP has the solution”. I must admit that I worried at the time that I was being slightly alarmist. So I was gratified when only weeks later, OfGem, the government energy regulator, made much the same point. Only they didn’t cite 2020. On Oct 5th 2012, they warned of increasing risks of blackouts in three years. Do the math, as the Americans say.
Nor did their warnings stop there. In June of this year, they warned that the risk of blackouts had tripled in a year. The government assures us that the issue is under control, but the industry begs to differ.
What’s gone wrong? The closure of most of our current nuclear fleet could have been foreseen – indeed was foreseen – for many years. Nuclear power stations have a finite life. But neither the previous Labour administration, nor our current Coalition, showed anything like a sense of urgency. Gordon Brown even sold off Westinghouse, because he believed that nuclear would not be needed.. So we are reduced to buying from the French. Or the Japanese. And the delays have been nail-biting. As I write it looks as though a new deal with EDF for Hinckley Point could be signed within weeks. But it’s too little, too late. The new reactors won’t come on stream until 2020 (probably). And the lights will go out before then.
In my view we should be aiming as a nation to start a new nuclear power plant every couple of years. Then there would be secure work for manufacturers, and a clear career path for graduates in nuclear engineering. And in sixty years (about the life-time of a new nuclear plant) we’d have a fleet of thirty nuclear power stations, constantly refreshed. OK, by 2073 we may have nuclear fusion, which would be a huge step forward. But we actually need energy available in the interim.
Then there’s the European Union’s Large Combustion Plant Directive. This has required us prematurely to close down a number of perfectly good coal-fired power plants, creating a huge gap in our generation capacity. Bizarrely, Germany, having decided to close its nuclear fleet, has been building or refurbishing 25 coal-fired plants (and there’s plenty of cheap coal from the USA, as America switches to even cheaper shale gas). I’m sometimes asked how Germany can keep on building coal capacity when we’re closing ours. It seems that the LCPD does allow coal subject to very tight emissions limits and environmental rules. Germany has decided to swallow the costs involved: our industry decided that the cost of the major up-grades needed could not be justified in commercial terms.
I believe we should be building new coal-fired capacity, either (if we must) according to EU rules, or better still (if we can get out from under) using a more realistic approach in the UK. It is a measure of the damage which Caroline Lucas and her green colleagues have done that our government simply doesn’t dare to propose new coal capacity.
The other problem we have is our huge over-commitment to intermittent renewables, driven by EU irrational targets. Not content with the current proliferation of wind turbines, the government proposes to spend an eye-watering £100 billion on new ones. For a fraction of that price we could build gas capacity – indeed gas is the only serious generating technology that could now be brought on-line in time to solve our energy problem. But again, there’s no sign of urgency in government. New gas capacity would dove-tail neatly with the availability of cheap shale-gas as that industry develops.
And meantime, the EU is proposing “capacity payments” to subsidise gas plants which would need to be on stand-by to back up wind. There is no end to the types and costs of subsidies they will spend in a futile attempt to keep their green dream alive.
I have explained elsewhere why intermittent renewables fail to deliver either the net power generation, or the emissions reductions, that are envisaged, because they export inefficiency to the necessary fossil-fuel back-up.
So what can we expect? Brown-outs, black-outs, price spikes, special “demand management” deals with large industrial consumers, huge payments to organisations with emergency generators to make them available when the grid runs out. A hugely inefficient patchwork of ad-hoc measures in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable.
A warning to the government: one thing the voters will not forgive is an administration that lets the lights go out. Ed Davey, you have been warned.