Our Energy Policy

By Hodgson, Peter | Contemporary Review, April 1993 | Go to article overview

Our Energy Policy


Hodgson, Peter, Contemporary Review


THE recent Government decisions concerning the gas, coal and nuclear industries show once again the lack of a coherent long-term energy policy. Policies seem to be dictated by short-term economic considerations with little or no thought for the future.

The first of these decisions is what is called the 'dash for gas'. Several new gas-fired stations are being built, but it is far from obvious that they will compete economically now, and according to the energy expert Professor Fells the price of gas is likely to double in the next ten years as the North Sea reserves are depleted. Dr. Winterton of Bradford University has estimated that the new gas policy will add |pound~1 billion to our energy bill and force the closure of 17 coal-fired power stations.

This is possibly part of the reason why it has also been decided to close a large number of our remaining coal mines in spite of widespread public support for the miners. Another reason is that it may be cheaper to import coal than to mine it ourselves. As the gas runs out we shall need more coal, but will be unable to provide it for ourselves. Is it not then likely that our overseas suppliers, seeing that we have to buy their coal, will gradually raise their price, to our acute discomfort?

In the modern world, it is very desirable whenever possible to avoid dependence on overseas supplies of vital materials. That is why the French, for example, lacking both oil and coal, decided to invest heavily in nuclear energy, so that now 75 per cent of their electricity comes from nuclear power stations. In a few years the result of our present policies will force us to buy overseas coal, when we are still sitting on huge deposits of our own. Once a coal mine is abandoned, it soon becomes unworkable; it cannot be effectively mothballed. We may regret those closures.

Although it provides about 20 per cent of our electricity (50 per cent in Scotland) nuclear power is widely regarded as a dead duck. The decision not to include the nuclear power stations in the privatisation programme seemed to be the last straw. Is this really the end of the road that began with such high hopes in the fifties, when Britain led the world in the peaceful application of atomic energy? As the gas runs out and imported coal becomes more and more expensive, nuclear power will look increasingly attractive.

In Britain we are very fortunate in our energy supplies. We have huge coal deposits and large, though rapidly diminishing, oilfields in the North Sea. In some areas hydroelectric power makes a substantial contribution. Taken together, they can supply all our energy needs. In the sense that we can survive without it, we do not really need nuclear power. If we build nuclear power stations, it should only be because they are demonstrably better, safer, cheaper and less harmful to the environment than the alternative sources.

If we are to have a sensible energy policy, all the available energy sources must be carefully evaluated according to these criteria, expressing the results in numbers wherever possible. This alone makes it possible to reduce to reach decisions that command general respect. When this is done, we find that oil is definitely too costly, and in any case it is a precious commodity that has far too many uses in the petrochemical industries for it to be squandered by burning. Hydropower is limited by the availability of suitable rivers so there is little scope for further development. That leaves coal and nuclear as the only possible large-scale future sources of power. This is the choice we have to make, however much the other sources are developed.

The renewable sources like wind and solar can be useful in some circumstances such as providing power in rather remote areas where not much is needed and an intermittent supply is acceptable. Unfortunately they cannot supply the power needs of large cities and industries. Tidal power is practicable in only a few places like the Severn estuary, and inevitably has severe environmental effects. …

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