New Labour’s power vacuum
The UK government’s obsession with energy self-sufficiency and renewables looks set to lead to blackouts in the next few years.
Due to poor planning and an unwillingness to take difficult decisions, the UK is facing a future of increasingly frequent power cuts. But the British elite’s abdication of clear political leadership means it will blame foreigners, you, centralised power stations and weak regulation for its failure to keep the lights on.
On Monday, at the Chessington World of Adventures theme park in Surrey, children on an electric ride were left dangling over a group of lions after a power cut. In Yarmouth, seafront traders have been blacked out four times this summer. In Henley-on-Thames, six businesses will be denied all use of IT for nine hours.
Welcome to the very real world of power cuts in the UK. Thankfully, these incidents have led to loss of trade, but no loss of life. Also, when lights go out unexpectedly today, the cause is usually a simple electrical fault, a need for local maintenance, or the occasional bird hitting power lines. As yet, these are inconveniences, but little cause for alarm.
Yet the penny has begun to drop that Britain faces something more serious in years to come. As power cuts grow more frequent and hit more and more people, debate will shift. New Labour will still be blamed for its doltish policies on electricity investment in the past. But louder voices will be calling for a more autarchic approach to UK energy supply, more do-it-yourself electricity generation, lower personal use of electricity, and more government regulation of everything electrical. These recommendations will mark a new low in public discourse on energy.
Going it alone and cutting back
Last year, a major independent report, A Pragmatic Energy Policy for the UK, warned that Britain faced losing 23 gigawatts (GW), a third of its generating capacity, by 2020. Policy vacillation and procrastination, wrote Professor Ian Fells and Candida Whitmill of Fells Associates, were primarily responsible for leading the UK into needing to retire old nuclear power plants, prematurely closing coal-fired stations under the EU’s Large Combustion Plant Directive, and trying to achieve the unattainable: the generation of 40 per cent of UK electricity through renewable sources of energy by 2020, when in 2008 such sources generated less than five per cent.
For Fells Associates, dependency on gas imports from unstable political regimes was set to accelerate, and Britain’s security of energy supply had to take priority over ‘everything else, even climate change’ (1).
‘Electricity’, Fells opines, ‘is the life blood of civilisation; without it we spiral down into anarchy and barbarism’. Leaving aside the melodramatic alarmism (and the mixed metaphors), the Fells Associates report calls for greater self-sufficiency in energy supply. The authors worry about UK reliance on gas from Russia, preferring coal (‘partly indigenous and partly imported from reasonably stable parts of the world’) and breeder nuclear reactors (which use imported uranium 60 times more efficiently than conventional nuclear plants). The report leans towards autarchy in electricity generation. However, the report is quite right to ridicule what it calls the government’s ‘unattainable’ targets for renewables, and especially its lack of realism about offshore wind farms. The report is also right to highlight Britain’s impending energy gap.
These rational points were a red rag to Greenpeace UK chief scientist Doug Parr. Parr damned the Fells Associates report for what he called its ‘negative, white flag’ approach to climate change, adding that Professor Fells’ ‘fetish’ for coal and nuclear power looked ‘increasingly naive’ (2). Yet a glance at Greenpeace UK’s website shows that it fully shares Fells’ concern about energy security (3). Lining up with official policy, the website also insists that, with electrical appliances in the home, ‘We can all do our bit by using more efficient products and by being more careful with our energy consumption – but government regulation could totally transform the picture almost overnight’ (4).
This is the conventional wisdom on electrical power nowadays. While climate change is a global problem and even supply is now internationalised – the French nuclear power specialist EdF, for example, supplies much of the electricity used by Britain’s south east – the consensus is that Britain must make her own volts and amps. Indeed Greenpeace, like New Labour, wants autarchy pursued right down to the level of individual households. ‘Decentralising our energy system’, the eco-warriors announce, ‘enables homes to become power stations’ (5). On the other hand, you should spend your time switching off all appliances when you’re not using them, and the state should ban inefficiency in energy: ‘If all retailers in the UK only stocked energy-efficient light bulbs, we could save over five million tonnes of CO2 emissions a year. That’s the equivalent of the output of two nuclear power stations…’ (6)
This is an investment-lite approach to electricity generation. It is fully consistent with New Labour’s continuing refusal to get serious about nuclear power (7). The government would much rather you just turned things off. It also wants to turn the clock back on centralised facilities for power generation, in the implicit, small-is-stupid delusion that the microgeneration of electricity in flats and houses can match such facilities on cost and reliability (8). And it couldn’t care less that the new, oh-so-efficient low-energy light bulbs that the EU has made mandatory are often too large to fit in with many lamps and fittings, and give out a ghostly, slow-to-come-on and hard-to-dim light (9).
The logic of this approach is that, until Britain develops electricity generation that is 100 per cent reliant on renewable energy, power cuts would be a good thing. After all, they would mean less demand for nuclear power, and fewer emissions of CO2 from coal- and gas-fired plants.
Hooray for the dark!
Would the Tories be any different?
Nearly one year on from the Fells Associates report, The Economist newspaper has also noticed that life in Britain could get gloomier – literally. It, too, is worried about energy security: like Fells Associates, it frets about the UK’s dependence on gas controlled by Moscow, sounding a traditional Cold War note about the Russians ‘terrorising their customers’ (10). Like Greenpeace, it wants more regulation – not of electrical appliances, but of the market for electricity supply: ‘the liberal energy model’, it argues, ‘is in urgent need of a tune-up’ (11).
In fact, The Economist’s traditional antipathy to the Kremlin is overdone. According to the UK government, gas coming from continental Europe in 2016/17 could represent just 14 per cent of peak supply capacity, with Russia merely one among a range of nations sitting behind these imports (12). Yet it does say a lot about The Economist’s fears that, as a supposed advocate of free markets, it so unabashedly calls for more state controls over electricity production.
Who, though, is most likely to carry such measures through? It is telling signal of the condition of British politics that the Conservative Party now indicts New Labour for… not being New Labour enough. In search of energy security, the Tories indict the government for failing to live up to its promise both to engage in adequate investment in renewable energy, and to incentivise household energy efficiency (13). In familiar style, they want a ‘decentralised energy revolution’ – in other words, the microgeneration of electricity (14). And to confirm their New Labouresque distaste for nuclear power, the Conservatives announce that the need for an infrastructure to handle the disposal of low-energy light bulbs is as acute as the need for one to handle the disposal of nuclear waste (15). They add: ‘Nuclear is not an alternative to developing and expanding renewable forms of energy’ (16).
The Conservatives have their priorities the wrong way round. Renewable sources of electricity are not an alternative to nuclear (17). Nuclear is not an intermittent source of electricity, but renewables are – at least until they are built on a large scale, with a wide geographic spread, so that we can pretty much guarantee some generation at all times. And Professor Ian Fells has summarised just how delays to new nuclear reactors in Britain are political in nature, not technological. Fells is worth quoting at length:
‘Can new stations be built in time to close the perceived gap opening up in electricity supply, particularly in the UK? It is expected that 2012 will be the year demand for electricity exceeds supply; ominously it is the year when the Olympic Games will be held in London and power cuts would be an embarrassment.
‘First of all, designs have to be licensed. The AP 1000 [reactor, made by Westinghouse/Toshiba] is already licensed in America, but … the UK insists on carrying out its own licensing programme, and this takes skilled manpower which is in very short supply. Licensing of proposed designs will not be complete until 2011/12 according to the Nuclear White Paper. This delay will affect the time before planning permission is obtained to build a new station. The shortage of skilled engineering manpower and experience (the last nuclear station to be built in Britain was Sizewell B in 1995) means that we have lost the ability to build a nuclear power station. We will have to rely on the French, Americans or Japanese to build one for us, and that will mean joining a queue when we get around to ordering one. As far as construction is concerned, a good deal of the work will be contracted out to British firms.
‘The actual build time is around 45 months, based on experience in the Far East, but this stretches out to 10 years when certification and licensing, planning permission, and other bureaucracy are included. One “pinch point” common to all power station constructors is the shortage of companies able to manufacture the huge forgings necessary for a modern nuclear power station. Presently, only Japan Steel can do it…
‘These problems emphasise the international nature of the nuclear power building programme.’ (18)
Apart from the omission of the obstructive role played by environmentalist opponents of nuclear power, it is hard to quarrel with Fells’ assessment.
Nuclear power, like all forms of technology today, is not a means to national autarchy, but part of an international division of labour. Little Englanders might not like that, and should be allowed to dream on about a Britain in which British firms make British wind turbines (no doubt with all-British workers, too). But the world economy is a fact of life.
No household is an island. Now that we have direct rail links to continental Europe, Britain isn’t really an island, either. The task ahead is not to look to householders and other end users to generate or cut electricity, but to win the political battle for a better national and international division of labour around cheap, universal energy.
Gordon Brown’s dying regime has been reported to want to tax householders, not just to make up for its renewables excesses, but also for its lengthy neglect of carbon capture and storage, and for its just-as-lengthy indecision on nuclear (19). This is not its job; but it is the job of government to confront prejudice and argue for real progress in energy. Neither New Labour nor the Tories are prepared to do this. The vacuum in British political power today presages cuts in electrical power tomorrow.
James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester. He is author, with Joe Kaplinsky, of Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation, published by Beautiful Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky criticised the myth that New Labour is pro-nuclear. In 2007, James Woudhuysen accused the then UK department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform of strangling generation schemes in red tape. Rob Johnston highlighted the lack of a UK windpower industry and exposed 10 myths about nuclear power. Tim Black talked about Ed Miliband’s response to environmentalist skin-flick The Age of Stupid and called Britain a world leader in dithering on the issue of nuclear power. Or read more at spiked issue Energy.
(1) A Pragmatic Energy Policy for the UK, Fells Associates, August 2008 (PDF)
(2) Britain faces ‘power cuts threat’, BBC News, 17 September 2008
(3) Energy efficiency, Greenpeace UK
(4) Energy efficiency, Greenpeace UK
(5) Climate Change – the solutions, Greenpeace UK
(7) See The myth that New Labour is pro-nuclear, by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky, 30 April 2009, on
(8) For more on microgeneration, see Micro-aspirations, by Austin Williams, 30 September 2005
(9) The CFLs are on, but nobody’s home, by James Woudhuysen, 12 January 2009
(10) How long till the lights go out?, leader, The Economist, 6 August 2009
(11) Dark days ahead, The Economist, 6 August 2009
(13) p13, The low carbon economy: security, stability and green growth, Conservatives, January 2009
(14) Where we stand: Climate Change and Energy, Conservatives
(15) p31, The low carbon economy: security, stability and green growth, Conservatives, January 2009
(16) Where we stand: Climate Change and Energy, Conservatives
(17) Energy: the answer is not blowing in the wind, by Rob Johnston, 11 December 2007
(18) A New Generation of Nuclear Power Stations, Professor Ian Fells, February 2008
(19) Consumers to pay for new nuclear power plants, Daily Telegraph, 18 August 2009
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