Anyone watching the news yesterday evening or reading todays tabloids would struggle to believe the UK is the world’s 8th largest economy. An economy that’s days away from gas rationing, a country that has de-incentivised the storage of fuel and that, if the management of SSE (Scottish & Southern Energy) is right, is very close to large scale power outages.
Most of us interested in the maintenance of the UK as a world powerhouse and are proud of our world-leading heritage in developing core infrastructure backbones such as the National Grid and developing the North Sea Oil and Gas fields can hardly believe the position we’re in.
Even if we ignore the pressures of the recent cold spell, balancing energy supply and demand has become an industry in its own right, employing hundreds of souls across trading floors, but has also become a finely balanced battle of political wits. The crucial job of monitoring our demands for heat and light (often by watching commercial TV ad-breaks and weather forecasts) has simply become a vital by-product of back-office battles /interplay between multinational corporations and inter continental governments.
With these dynamics in play, whether we stay warm (or cool on that July day when the country takes its top off!)is now more likely to be decided on the other end of a pipeline in Russia or in a natural gas shipping terminal in Qatar, so ensuring effective ‘working’ relationships has become the top priority. With the reputation of UK PLC on the line and the safety of our population in the hands of offshore entities, I believe the matter of energy supply should be firmly on the agenda and on the conscience of all of us.
So, in this mean new world, the UK has moved to being a Just-In-Time (JIT) energy consumer (we now import more oil and gas than we export) and has ostensibly done away with the gasometers that scarred the skylines in the 1960’s. When we face chronic shortages of gas, as we do today, the blame games commence. The PLC’s who are mostly non-UK entities blame the government. The Coalition blames their predecessors. The Labour Party will point to the JIT model working well in other countries, but why does France keep 100 days ‘stock’ of gas, when we’ll survive on a forecast average of just 15?
With a mean stock of just 15 days, a prolonged cold spell, a government argument with a supplying nation or, as happened in Belgium this week, an inter-connector technical problem, could leave the UK facing a shivery future.
Then we look closer to home. In the last week, Councillors in Gloucestershire turned down plans for a waste incinerator which not only would have reduced the County’s nightmare waste problem, but also generated enough electricity for 25,000 homes. Similar incinerators using pyrolysis technology are springing up across Europe and achieving great efficiency rates, reducing landfill and creating both electricity and heat for local communities.
We look a little closer at other ‘green energy’ schemes also facing NIMBY-esque battles such as wind farms and wave schemes which are either on hold, have proven too costly for developers or have been cancelled. Will it take mass energy shortages for the population, local councillors and the government to realise that we’re running out of options? I can guarantee that once the lights start going out, the government presiding on that day won’t be re-elected!
So we find ourselves in a catch 22 position. Energy companies are owned offshore and outside of government control. They blame the government for the current position and refuse to invest unless long-term RoAM figures can be agreed. Negotiations to agree these positions are taking too much time and meanwhile energy projects such as Hinkley Point are fifteen years away.
This week, we closed down ‘dirty old Didcot’ and soon the cooling towers will disappear. The megawatts that fuelled the grid from the Oxfordshire plant will be replaced largely by gas and oil generated power – and there’s the rub, by having to switch away from coal, we’ve just opened ourselves up to more interdependence on a foreign energy source.
We’ve now got the problem in our cross heirs – we need to clean up our act and save the environment, we all agree that, but to achieve this is taking not just regulation but enforcement, resulting in a loss of capacity when we need it most. Whilst the generators can keep the turbines spinning for a few more years, the EU will ultimately force their cessation.
We’ve now hit a tipping point where the negotiators need to do their job more effectively to prevent price hikes, shortages and worse. As a nation, we need to increase our awareness of this issue and lobby our representatives hard.
We also need to realise that this issue out-trumps our historic right for un-blighted landscapes, free of windmills and humming grey boxes and whilst this is unpalatable for many who like me, live in the beautiful south west, we can either blame governments past, polish our NIMBY attitudes, or get on with curing a critical illness that won’t just go away.