Skip to content

Simon Jenkins: British Energy Policy Is A Dark Underworld Of Fanatics

Anyone who claims to understand energy policy is either mad or subsidised. Last week I wrote that politics is seldom rational. It is more often based on intuition and tribal prejudice. This week we have a thundering example: the government’s new policy on nuclear energy.

Do not read on if you want a conclusion on this subject. For years I have read papers, books, surveys and news stories, and am little wiser. I trust to science and am ready to believe there is some great mathematician, some Fermat’s last theorem, who can write an equation showing where energy policy should turn. I have never met him.

The equation would start with the current market price of coal, gas, oil, nuclear and so-called “renewables”. That would give simple primacy to coal and gas. The equation would then factor in such variables as security of supply, which – being imponderable – can be argued from commercial interest and prejudice. Then it would have to take account of global warming and the virtue of lower carbon emissions. At this point the demons enter.

We must consider CO2 reduction through substituting gas for coal, carbon capture, nuclear investment, biomass, wind, wave, solar and tidal generation. We must consider the application of fiscal policy to gas and petrol use, to energy efficiency and house insulation. Each has a quantity attached to it and each a fanatical lobby drooling for subsidies. As for achieving a remotely significant degree of global cooling, that requires world diplomacy – which has, as yet, proved wholly elusive.

Britain’s contribution to cooling can only be so infinitesimal as to be little more than gesture politics, yet it is a gesture that is massively expensive. Meeting the current EU renewables directive, largely from wind, would cost some £15bn a year, or £670 a household, and involve the spoliation of swaths of upland, countryside and coast. It is calculated to save a mere 0.2% of global emissions, with negligible impact on the Earth’s sea level.

Yet the government wants to commit a staggering £100bn to wind farm subsidies over the next decade, almost all to rich landowners. Northamptonshire, with England’s most planned wind farms per acre (and least wind), will probably have turbines visible from horizon to horizon. Will this really so impress China and India as to persuade them to change their emissions policies? It is like a primitive tribe burning its wives and treasure to awe an enemy into submission.

Full comment