For the past week apocalyptic headlines have declared Britain perilously close to running out of gas, largely because no-one ever bothered to build the kind of storage infrastructure that’s common in France and Germany. They can store three month’s worth of the stuff while we’ve only got capacity for a fortnight.
Anyone trying to get any sense out of government on these issues is met with stonewalling. DECC and the National Grid like to pass the buck to each other, normally issuing terse statements about the viability of our ‘energy mix’ and generally declaring that all is well. They claim gas storage is a red herring because we’ve still got our North Sea gas to draw on, pipelines to the Continent and a burgeoning wind energy sector both onshore and off.
There is another view, though, which runs like this; while successive governments have been obsessed with wind energy, unfortunately the wind only blows some of the time. Governments have encouraged companies to build gas or nuclear power stations, but under a rather demented vision for the future at DECC these are only meant to be a backup for when the wind isn’t blowing. As such DECC has decreed that any new nuclear power stations should be built without direct government subsidy, something which has never happened anywhere in the western world. Where, exactly, the incentive to plough billions into a facility which the government really only sees as a backstop?
It’s hardly a surprise that these firms are giving government the finger, which is exactly what happened last month when Centrica became the latest firm to pull out of a plant-building deal last moth. Eon and EDF have both balked at similar prospects in the past twelve months. Five years after the government announced sites for a new generation of nuclear power stations, only one is remotely close to being built, at Hinkley, and even then everyone’s holding their breath to see whether EDF and DECC can agree a ‘strike price’ – the long-term amount the company will receive for electricity generation. The deal could easily fall through and if it does the prospect of an energy shortfall within a decade becomes a foregone conclusion.
Part of the problem is coalition; the Lib Dems in control at DECC make little secret of their desire to carpet the countryside with wind farms, and flagship legislation has been delayed thanks to interminable wranglings over the Green Investment Bank between the department and the Treasury. The government seems determined to press ahead with shutting coal-fired power stations despite the looming energy shortfall. EU directives are blamed for this, even though the UK often seems to be the only member state which pays the slightest bit of attention to them.
But most people accept the problem runs across successive governments. So it’s somewhat surprising that nobody’s really looking at how Labour’s energy record contributed to the problem. Any study of that record must include the behaviour of Ed Miliband, who was in charge of DECC for nearly three years from 2008. Ed Miliband’s pre-occupation was storing carbon, not gas, and his only real piece of legislation dealt solely with these. At least Miliband understood the need to build new nuclear power stations, landing the onerous gig of trying to turn around the New Labour supertanker, which for most of its time in government refused to even look at nuclear investment.
Even so Labour could and should have enacted the sort of legislation during Ed Miliband’s tenure at DECC which the coalition is trying to implement now; liberalising planning laws to allow big gas storage projects to be built, fast-tracking planning considerations on nuclear sites. That work was only beginning when Labour left office, since then the coalition has dragged its feet. DECC under Chris Huhne did almost nothing to expedite these processes, and it’s quite baffling that nearly three years into the coalition the legislation to do so hasn’t even been given Royal Assent and is unlikely to get it before the end of this year.
Even if the lights don’t go out at some point later in this decade, we’re facing a looming time-bomb on energy bills. At the moment they’re being kept artificially low by cheap coal imports from America, which has a glut of coal to get rid of now they’re dining out on shale gas. Once we start to turn off our coal-fired stations to please Europe that suppressant on prices quickly vanishes. If the shambles surrounding negotiations on whether to build a new power station at Hinkley are anything to go by, the prospects for averting both energy insecurity and fuel poverty seem remote.
One thing that all politicians should be able to agree on; the Department for Energy and Climate Change is a disastrous, dysfunctional department whose two concerns seem to neuter its effectiveness at achieving either. Certainly this was the case under Labour but its inertia seems only to have been amplified under coalition, with every indication this would remain so if the next election produced a Lib/Lab one.
It’s hard to trace this torrent of bad decision-making back to the source, although the Blair/Brown refusnik attitude towards nuclear seems a likely candidate. What seems apparent is that we currently enjoy a Secretary of State for Climate Change under Ed Davey, supported by an energy minister in the form of John Hayes. The problems Britain faces in terms of future energy security mean this setup needs to be entirely reversed; we haven’t had a full-time energy secretary in this country since 1992, with results that are becoming more obvious with every passing week. Our collective memory of three-days weeks and power shortages appears to have lapsed, at a time when our reliance on computers to get things done should’ve made us more focused on energy security, not less.
Instead we face a future where a harsh winter similar to this one coupled with an unexpected pipeline shutdown could realistically lead to gas rationing. But worst of all we will see political parties blaming one another for an entirely avoidable mess, one which will do more to hamper Britons’ standard of living than any omnishambles budget or recession could ever achieve.