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Britain’s Coming Energy Crisis

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David Rose, The Spectator

Costly green measures are behind our rocketing energy bills. But as politicians dither, an even greater crisis awaits

Power-Failures

BASF, the world’s largest chemical company, has been headquartered in Germany since before the country formally existed. Founded in 1865 by the industrial pioneer Friedrich Engelhorn, it still occupies the vast site on the banks of the Rhine at Ludwigshafen where its first dye and soda factories were built. A third of its staff are employed in Rhineland Palatinate. It is a global company, yet as German as Goethe and gummi bears.

A few days ago Kurt Bock, the firm’s chief executive, warned that its Ludwigshafen plant may soon be forced to close, with BASF’s German jobs relocated elsewhere. The reason, he said, was Germany’s soaring energy costs and the crippling green levies being used to pay for ‘renewables’ such as wind farms. With German energy prices already twice as high as in the United States and likely to rise much further, the time had come to reconsider ‘the competitiveness of the location’.

BASF’s British rivals should take no comfort from this. For years Britain has, like Germany, chosen green energy over cheap energy — and piled regulation after regulation, levy after levy, on the providers of fossil fuels. In Germany the effect is now becoming apparent: the sacrifice of industry on the altar of environmentalism. It may sound like economic suicide, but it is precisely the policy which David Cameron’s government is pursuing.

Energy now stands at the very centre of British politics, a subject enlivened by Ed Miliband’s pledge to freeze household energy bills. His policy is wildly popular, seeing as gas and electricity prices have roughly trebled in the past ten years. More than five million households are now in fuel poverty. As winter advances, the choice between heating or eating isn’t some abstract slogan, but a daily dilemma. Each winter in Brtain, some 25,000 elderly people die from the cold.

But the debate has been bizarre. Politicians from all benches of the Commons like to lambast the Big Six energy companies, without mentioning their own culpability. Mr Miliband talks about forcing energy bosses to take pay cuts. Meanwhile David Cameron and Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat Climate Change Secretary, suggest the answer is to fiddle around with schemes such as the ‘eco’ levy which subsidises home insulation, and move them from fuel bills to general taxation, so cutting bills by 7 per cent. Nothing either side is discussing will make more than a temporary cosmetic difference.

While they bicker about trimming a few tens of pounds here or there, Parliament has been dealing with the closing stages of the Energy Bill. This, working in concert with its predecessor, the 2008 Climate Change Act, will inflict the biggest fuel bill increases of all. The 2008 measure enforces a legally binding carbon emission target for 2020. But because it’s much harder to cut emissions from transport and heating than electricity generation, this will mean trebling the proportion of power produced by renewables from its current 11 per cent over just six years.

The cost of this swift and radical transformation dwarfs marginal items such as the eco levy. According to the ‘levy control framework’ established by the Energy Bill, it means more than tripling renewable subsidies to £7.6 billion by the end of this decade. The total renewable subsidy which UK consumers will have paid via higher energy bills for the ten years to 2020 will be an almighty £46 billion.

Even this eye-watering figure is a massive underestimate. This week, the National Audit Office said bills were likely to rise above inflation for at least 17 years, with the cost of government commitments likely to be at least £700 per household. According to the energy experts Professor Gordon Hughes of Edinburgh University and Peter Atherton of Liberum Capital, the Energy Bill figure does not factor in the enormous cost of connecting wind turbines to the National Grid, nor the complicated switching mechanisms needed to deal with the fact that no turbine will actually produce power for more than a third of the time. They say the true green bill by 2020 could be more than £100 billion, with households paying around £400 more per household for electricity alone.

For voters, this will mean years of further cost-of-living misery. But for business, it may well lead to German-style bankruptcy. About two thirds of this legally mandated ‘dash for wind’ will be paid for by companies. Some will find it intolerable, and join previous casualties of Britain’s green revolution such as aluminium smelting. Those that remain will have little choice but to pass their bills on to customers — so many other things will become more expensive, too.

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