The Winds of Change: The Two Priorities for the UK's Energy Policy Are Decarbonisation and Energy Security, but Are They Compatible?

Article excerpt

To the casual reader, it would not have been particularly notable. But to anyone who follows energy policy closely, the decision by Gordon Brown in the foreword to a recent energy white paper to describe energy security as "imperative" and climate change as a "challenge" is a huge waving flag. Security has now, in political terms, overtaken climate change.

Energy security and climate change are seen as the Big Issues for Britain's energy policy. But are the threats to security as real as much political debate--and special pleading by various vested interests--would have us believe? In reality, those thinking about energy security worry about two, quite distinct possible problems--increased reliance on foreign suppliers of oil and gas (the "nasty foreigner" issue) and a possible electricity gap around 2015, with an apparent risk of the lights going out. While both things need to be watched, they are often overhyped.

The dominant fear about oil and gas imports is the idea that Russia will make political use of the clout given by its enormous gas reserves, coupled with the fact that the UK is at the end of the line. In practice, we get only 2 per cent of our gas from Russia and companies have built a number of liquefied natural gas terminals around the coast. In other words, we are managing the import problem (as are virtually all the other G8 countries). "Peak oil" is also exaggerated: oil supply adequacy is undoubtedly a long-term challenge, but no immediate threat.

The second security issue (the "gap") derives from the need to replace a large proportion of electricity-generating capacity, especially around 2015, when we will lose most of our nuclear power capacity and new sulphur/nitrogen limits will drastically reduce coal-fired capacity. The government's apparent complacency about this is not as unreasonable as it may look. The UK will continue to expand renewables, and the default option remains gas-fired power, which is quick and easy to build, with many projects in the pipeline. The "gap" will thus probably disappear without too much trouble. But if it does start to pose a risk, the UK will seek--and get--derogations or postponements from the rules about sulphur emissions, and simply run the coal-fired plants longer.

The real problem with filling the "gap" is its potential effect on the second main energy-policy challenge of carbon cuts. If the gap needs a great deal of fossil fuel to fill it--especially if new coal-fired capacity supplements gas--we will get locked in to high-carbon power when we badly need to decarbonise the electric power system. …