Magazine article The Spectator

Whistling in the Dark

Magazine article The Spectator

Whistling in the Dark

Article excerpt

Power cuts and rolling blackouts are about as Old Labour as rising taxes and paranoia about spooks, so it should come as no surprise that astute observers of the political scene are stockpiling candles. A report published this week explains why. According to the Institution of Civil Engineers (Ice), Britain is heading for a repeat of the 1974 three-day week, with the government forced to impose power cuts and homes left without light and heat. Ice says these problems will be upon us by 2020, but many industry experts think this is too optimistic. Professor Ian Fells, chairman of the New and Renewable Energy Centre, says that there is a 20 per cent chance that power cuts will start this winter, while Nial Trimble of the Energy Contract Company says that, without urgent action now, power cuts are a racing certainty in the winter of 2005-06.

No one should underestimate this threat to our welfare. Power cuts would create havoc with the economy. Businesses - far more reliant on computers now than in 1974 wouldn't be able to function. The Tube would shut down. Water and gas systems, both of which depend on electronic pumps and compressors, would fail. Worst affected would be hospitals and universities and other big institutional users of gas and electricity. And what is the government doing about this threat to our economic security? Precisely nothing.

The problem is that Britain is running out of gas. For the past 20 years, we've been addicted to the stuff. It was so cheap and came out of the North Sea in such quantities that we staked much of our electricity system on it. But North Sea gas production has peaked and will soon fall sharply. On current forecasts, we will need to import 50 per cent of our gas by 2010 and 90 per cent by 2020. According to Ice, we are nowhere near prepared for this huge shift in our energy needs.

As things stand, we will be dependent on gas transported thousands of miles from some of the most politically unstable countries on the planet, such as Algeria, Iran and Russia. What's more, these pipelines must first pass through many other gas-needy countries. And Britain has not got the facilities to store the gas when it gets here. Most European countries have the capacity to store up to 20 per cent of their annual needs, but Britain can store only 4 per cent - or enough for about 48 hours' supply in winter. If we don't start building new storage facilities now, we won't be equipped to cope with a cold winter in three years' time, says Nial Trimble. 'The lights will go out. I guarantee it.'

Yet in a recent White Paper, the government effectively dismisses these concerns. It says that since exporting countries want British cash as much as we want their gas, there is nothing to worry about. Yet not even President Putin believes this. The Russian leader is sufficiently worried about the vulnerability of existing pipelines that he wants Britain and Russia to build a new one across the Baltic. But although a memorandum of understanding was signed during Putin's state visit last week, there is little chance of this pipeline ever being built, says Dr Jonathan Stern, director of gas research at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. The cost is simply too huge for any UK company to undertake, and the government won't permit the kind of long-term supply contracts that might make the pipeline viable. But without a major new source of supply, says Stern, the winter of 2005-06 will be 'a bet on the weather'.

Not only is the government failing to address the problem, however; it is actually making it worse - by reducing our energy diversity. …

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