Magazine article The Spectator

When the Lights Go Out

Magazine article The Spectator

When the Lights Go Out

Article excerpt

The effects of two decades of short sighted spinelessness in energy policy may soon be all too apparent.

The day Margaret Thatcher died was also the day Britain nearly ran out of gas. In late March, it was reported that stored reserves were down to just two days' supply. As the cold spell continued, the BBC even reported the names of ships bringing liquefied natural gas from Qatar, each cargo representing six hours' worth of urgently awaited heat and power for the nation: the Mehaines had just docked at the Isle of Grain, the Zarga had been sighted approaching Milford Haven.

The worst-case scenario was that the last gasometer would be flat by 8 April, and since a third of UK electricity generaeasing gas demand overall.

tion relies on gas, that would, or might, have meant temporary blackouts for businesses in some areas in order to maintain supply to homes, schools and hospitals. This drama didn't actually come to pass, attention was distracted by the death of the Iron Lady, and the arrival of more spring-like temperatures means heating has at last been turned down, But if it had happened, Thatcher's detractors would have claimed it was all her fault of her Downing Street tenure, an electricpotentially catastrophic absence of longsupporters would answer that a dozen secthat, as with so much of her legacy ('Britain now has perhaps the most efficient electricinadequate successors.

for launching, in the troubled final phase ity privatisation scheme that has gradually descended towards market failure, offering little strategic attraction to investors and a term security of supply for consumers. Her retaries of state since 1990 have had the opportunity to refine what she began - and ity supply industry in the world, ' she wrote confidently in 1995) the benefits have been warped and diluted by the vacillations of And even though the lights didn't go out this time, the near-miss - plus a rash of stories about delays in the building of new power stations - offers a warning of what's very likely to happen later in this decade, especially if the recent pattern of cold winters continues. A convergence of risks long foreseen by experts means that one of these days, 'Who got us into this mess?' will be overtaken as a national debate topic by 'Why are we shivering in the dark?'

To follow this argument, non-experts need some orders of magnitude in mind.

Here, then, is UK electricity in a nutshell, as encapsulated by Ofgem director-general Alistair Buchanan in a speech in February:

'Total capacity 80 Gigawatts, assumed availability around 67, maximum demand on a winter's day somewhere in a range from 56 or 57 to 60. As to where we get our electricity from, it's 40 per cent coal, 30 to 35 per cent gas, just under 20 per cent nuclear, and the rest from renewables, which are very much the growing picture.'

If that sounds reassuring, here's some more key numbers: within three years, the 'reserve margin of generation' - reliable spare capacity in the system - is set to fall from 14 per cent to just over 4 per cent, which Buchanan describes as 'uncomfortably tight'. Just how uncomfortable is illustrated by another Ofgem modelling the chances of the lights really going out: the risk of customer disconnections due to a critical shortfall of energy this winter was estimated at 'one in 3,300 years', but by 2015/16 it will be 'one in 12 years'. A pretty dramatic narrowing of odds, you might think, and even that depends on positive assumptions about generating capacity that could easily prove wrong.

For a G8 nation that has been electrified for a century to be in danger of largescale 'outages' through failure to nurture technologies and market structures capable of meeting national needs is a political disgrace, shared by a cavalcade of postThatcher energy and business ministers of all three main parties. Compare the French, securely 80 per cent nuclear-powered thanks to an investment programme sustained since the 1970s. …

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