Friday, January 11, 2008

The lights are going out, except in France

I remember a newspaper cartoon from the fifties or sixties. It showed a group of emaciated people huddled around a fire at the mouth of a cave, while in the background could be seen the crumbling remains of a city, its idle factories with smokeless chimneys and broken windows. The group is dressed in animal skins, primitive tools lie around and the oldest of them explains: ‘well, first they shut down all the nuclear power stations’.

The eternal and increasingly tedious energy debate comes down in the end to electricity. We need enough electricity, always available, at a reasonable price, to fuel our industry, commerce, health, hobbies and leisure. The debate should be about how to supply this now and in the short, medium and long term without unacceptable harm to the planet. In fact it is less a debate than a lecture from the pious, self-righteous evangelistic green lobby.

For the eco-fanatics look only at the second part of the problem: any harm to the planet is unacceptable. Yet their solutions will not keep the lights on in the short term, never mind in twenty years time. I submit that one of the fundamental duties of a government, after national security and a sound currency, is to keep the turbines running – enough turbines. Demand for electricity can only rise as the population and aspirations for a better standard of living increase. If generating capacity does not increase to match it we will have the same problems as have been seen recently in California and South Africa. China seems determined not to suffer, but at the cost of building a new coal fired power station every month or so – provide the power, forget the planet and lock up the yoghurt knitters. In Britain, we have a rapidly growing population, are running down the nuclear sector, which provides 19% of the power, and any new conventional power station, let alone a nuclear one, is vigorously resisted by the environment lobby. ‘Renewables’ – a silly name, we’re looking for inexhaustibles – are simply not being installed fast enough to cope and suffer from some existing problems, such as transmission losses between remote offshore wind or wave farms and population centres, and some new ones such as not knowing when the wind will blow. On top of that we already import electricity from France, nuclear generated of course. No doubt the French would be glad to cut off the supply next time we breach their diplomatic sensitivities or their farmers are offended by the import of some decent lamb. Or maybe just when they need it all themselves.

I resume, following a coincidental but timely boost to my argument in the shape of a power failure. On a mild, calm, dry day the voltage was abruptly reduced and anything sensitive to it stopped for an hour or so. This is common where we live, being as much as ten miles from a cathedral city and barely within spitting distance of a trunk road. We know exactly where to find a torch and my wife has an ample supply of candles and matches always on hand. A small generator, just enough for the central heating, sits in the garage (a false sense of security this one, being powered by the only Honda engine I know that absolutely will not start).

Yet the government, despite its announcement yesterday, has no clear plan. It is almost too late, even if the objectors were summarily overridden, to get enough new nuclear capacity going in time; wind and wave power comes in small increments and will not keep up; trying to blame the consumer with the tale that 8% of power goes on appliances on standby (a figure I simply do not believe) and urging him to change his habits is pointless. The price alone is enough to make us take all reasonable economies. The gas that fuels many of the power stations will one day have to come from Russia and if I joke about the French cutting us off I do not joke about the Russians – it has already happened. To fail to provide for self sufficiency in electricity is traitorously irresponsible. It cannot be left to committees, focus groups and blinkered special interests. It needs executive action, untainted by electoral considerations. Without it we shall before long find ourselves with an electricity supply that is as reliable and predictable as rainfall in the Australian bush.

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