It’s hard to imagine a greater shambles than Britain’s green energy policy
“Frankly, we are going to be absolutely fine,” Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, told the Financial Times this week in response to growing and acute concern in industry and beyond over the vanishingly small amount of standby electricity capacity Britain has to keep the lights on this winter. Reassured? I thought not.
In a shocking assessment, National Grid last week said that Britain’s cushion of spare generating capacity had sunk to just 4pc, down from 17pc three years ago and its lowest level in five years. And that’s despite a series of emergency measures, including incentives to business to use less power, to deal with the looming blackout problem.
If you had to bet on it, I guess you’d side with Mr Davey. It is indeed quite unlikely, even with such a small buffer, that blackouts and brownouts will become necessary, for 4pc represents the amount of spare capacity that exists over and above peak demand. Only if we got a prolonged, and windless, cold snap, in combination with further outages of the type we have already seen with a number of nuclear power stations, would there be a problem. However, you only have to think about that for a moment to realise that such a combination is not so improbable. The growing importance of wind in the energy mix makes the whole network much more dependent than it used to be on unpredictable, intermittent forms of power.
That a country of Britain’s size, status and relative prosperity is running such risks is a quite shocking state of affairs. There is admittedly some justification in Mr Davey’s excuse – that this is largely the fault of the last lot, and particularly the disastrously inadequate and idealistically minded energy policy run by our now friendless Labour leader, Ed Miliband. Replacement, base load generating capacity takes a long time to build, and it should have begun a long time ago.
Even so, the Coalition has had nearly five years behind the wheel now, and very little progress does it seem to have made, beyond committing consumers to eye-wateringly high future bills to persuade the French state to build us a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point. It’s hard to imagine a greater shambles.
Still, all things are relative, and come to think of it, the Germans seem uncharacteristically to be making an even worse fist of it than us in their attempt to rid themselves of reliance on nuclear, uncouple from the ghastly Vladimir Putin, and at the same time swathe themselves in luxurious green.
Energiewende – or “energy change” – is what they call it. Germany’s once world-beating Mittelstand of medium-sized enterprises has another term for it – “industrial suicide”. In an effort to cushion industry from the expense of marching Germany’s energy mix all the way from 23pc renewables today to 65pc in 20 years’ time, there are lots of exceptions and rebates for energy intensive industries, with the costs loaded substantially onto domestic consumers. But the overall economic costs are crippling, and by making domestic consumers pay, it further depresses consumer demand in Germany, and thereby adds to the scale of the eurozone crisis.