Britain’s Green Energy Fiasco: Running On Empty

  • Date: 17/02/13
  • Michael Hanlon, Danny Fortson and Jack Grimston, The Sunday Times

Britain, once the envy of Europe thanks to its North Sea energy riches, will lose nearly a third, 25-30 gigawatts (GW), of its generating capacity. If nothing is done, we could face decades lurching from crisis to crisis.

Ed Miliband steps up to the microphones. Looking drawn after an all-night crisis session with his Lib-Lab coalition cabinet, the prime minister clears his throat.

“The unprecedented cold spell has put our energy system under tremendous strain,” he says. “We are doing everything to ensure your lights stay on but the risk of power cuts is high. I am asking all citizens to switch off all non-essential electrical equipment.”

It is January 2017, four years hence. The harsh winter has pushed electricity and gas consumption to record highs. Britain’s antique power plants are struggling to cope.

The rocks under Lancashire and other parts of the country are thought to be rich in shale gas but exploratory work has been held up by community meetings and impact assessments. Plans for new nuclear power plants, the first for two decades, have been delayed by government reluctance to offer energy companies the guaranteed high prices they demand before stumping up the billions each one costs to build.

Faced with the prospect of having to impose part-time working, the government decides to risk angering Brussels instead. Miliband orders coal-fired plants, mothballed to comply with European pollution regulations, to be fired up again, even though it means hundreds of millions of pounds of fines for breaking our commitment to cut CO2.

Scaremongering? Not necessarily. Britain is caught in an energy crunch that is shaping up to be one of the most serious problems to face this administration — and the next. Nuclear plants that produce about a fifth of our energy began to be shut down last year. By 2023, only one — Sizewell B in Suffolk — will still be in operation.

Britain’s energy-generating capacity is shrinking fast

Britain’s energy-generating capacity is shrinking fast (Duncan Vere Green)

By the middle of this year several coal-powered stations, which have been supplying the equivalent of 6m homes’ worth of power, will be closed under EU agreements to reduce carbon emissions. Only a single gas-fired power plant is being built to replace them, and uncertainty over policy has paralysed the industry.

The lethargy is palpable. No fewer than 27 consultations are being carried out by Ofgem, the regulator, and the Department of Energy and Climate Change on different aspects of the industry. These include reviews of the Electricity Market Reform Bill, the government’s flagship legislation for its £200bn plan to replace old fossil-fuelled plants with expensive, and cleaner, alternatives such as nuclear and wind power. Why does it seem impossible to make a plan and execute it before it is too late?

By the early years of the next decade, Britain, once the envy of Europe thanks to its North Sea energy riches, will have lost nearly a third, 25-30 gigawatts (GW), of its generating capacity. At the same time, America is enjoying an energy bonanza. If nothing is done, we could face decades lurching from crisis to crisis.

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