Yorkshire Post JANUARY 3, 2006,
To celebrate the New Year I bring you a column of simple arithmetic and difficult questions. My purpose is to show you that 2006AD is crucial to Britain’s security and economic success.
The key word is energy. Without adequate, reliable and competitive supplies of energy, any nation is in trouble. On this basis, the UK is in serious difficulty. The immediate problem of keeping the lights on and industry turning in extremely cold weather – and last week we were on a knife edge - is entirely of our own making.
With oil and gas pouring from every North Sea orifice, governments behaved like foolish virgins. They did not invest in the future. Now North Sea production is past its peak and declining steadily. For the first time in our history we are net importers of energy.
Worse still, the Government’s regulation of the electricity industry through Ofgem, designed to pare prices to the bone, eliminated unprofitable spare generating capacity. It has left us with a much less robust national grid and a marked unwillingness by generators to build new power stations, whether coal, oil, gas or nuclear. It would serve the government right – though not consumers – if there were blackouts.
But my concern is not with the next few years, fraught though they may be, but with Britain’s security 10-20 years ahead, by which time I shall be kicking up daisies. This is where my simple arithmetic comes in.
At present coal (33%) and nuclear (20%) generate just over half of our electricity. But both coal and nuclear power stations are ageing and will be progressively closed. The demise of coal, the dirtiest British method of generation, will be hastened by EU environmental regulations and nuclear’s by prejudice.
Government projections forecast nuclear’s output will fall to seven per cent by 2020. Another 13% of coal generation could also go in the same period. Yet, as things stand, there are no plans to replace the quarter of our electricity supplies so lost.
Not even starry-eyed optimists expect renewables – effectively only subsidised wind power – to come anywhere near to filling a gap of 15-20% opening up between supply and demand. After 15 years’ development wind still produces only 0.5% of our power. Energy conservation is doing nothing to stem the relentless increase in demand for electricity by 1-1.5% a year
So how are we going to get the electricity we need to maintain our civilisation? The obvious answer is by importing more and more gas at unknown but almost certainly escalating prices from unstable parts of the world such as Russia, the Middle East, Algeria and Nigeria. In fact, current energy policy, such as it is, contemplates importing at least 80% of our energy in the form of gas.
For years, I have been telling disdainful politicians, assorted eggheads and clever little somethings in the City that this is a betrayal of the nation’s interests of criminal proportions. I hope that at last they will listen now that Russia has shown it is prepared to use gas as a political weapon by turning off the supply to the Ukraine.
In spite of Kyoto, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have been rising for at least three years. So, scientists came up with the idea of burning more coal by pumping CO2 from power stations into strata under the North Sea. They forget to tell you this “sequestration” would help to force out more oil and gas to produce more carbon and could double the price of electricity, and that it would do nothing about CO2 emissions from industry, homes and transport which represent 70% of the total.
In short, British energy policy, such as it is, is failing heroically on all counts. No wonder the government is reviewing it. It knows longer term security of supply is to be had from nuclear power. Nuclear has proved itself safe – not a single death from a radiation accident – reliable, competitive and clean over 50 years. It has no problems over uranium supplies or in disposing of its waste. All it needs is for the government to designate a site for its waste’s long-term storage.
We shall discover whether this year our politicians can break free of the grip of ignorant, prejudiced or lifestyle-wrecking greens and do their duty by the British people. With that prize pair of green crackpots, Sir Jonathan Porritt and Zac Goldsmith, advising Tony Blair and David Cameron respectively, don’t count on it. Just worry. You have nothing to lose but your comfort.