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  • Lord Copper

Rabbits in the headlights

Gas prices continue their upward movement, creating waves in the UK political arena. (I’m actually lucky to burn oil – no-one has been interested in laying gas mains to my village – and I’ve just still paid less for the next six months supply than I was doing before the covid pandemic hit.) The latest demands include abolishing VAT on domestic fuel and removing the green levies on energy bills. Neither of those is anything more than a sticking plaster, particularly the VAT one, since it is only a 5% levy, the removal of which would hardly make a significant difference. Then there has been the call for the government to subsidise bills – well, as we all know, the government per se doesn’t have money, so that call is for the approximately 50% of the population who pay income tax to make that subsidy. Again, that’s a short-term measure, and in my view a very difficult one to justify.

The depressing thing about this is that the mess that is the UK’s energy policy has been predictably unworkable for a long time. Successive governments have blundered around, paying more attention to fringe pressure groups than to cold, hard logic. So that’s left a position where we are at the mercy of imported gas prices, to supplement insufficient renewables – and, incidentally, seeing an uptick in the burning of coal this winter, due to higher number of still days (that’s when the wind turbines stand still…). But, of course, our politicians can wing their way around the world, boasting of net zero by 2050, or 2030, or 2035, or whatever the current vogue date is. 

Well, net zero would be a nice thing to achieve – I’m sure we would all, regardless of our environmental starting point, love to live in a less polluted atmosphere. But I struggle to see a coherent plan to achieve the goal. And on the basis of what we have seen so far, I suspect I’m not the only one. We’re very good at stopping things, or not doing them. So we don’t want fracking for domestic gas, we reduce coal burning, we cut North Sea drilling and exploration, we don’t have a serious handle on what to do with nuclear power. But all these things have consequences, and houses still need to be heated and factories powered; so as well as all the (hopefully) well-intentioned stopping or cutting of generative sources, we should be seeing replacement technologies –  ready to go, not pipe dreams of what may come in the future. 

What I would describe as failure to make adequate decisions over many years and different governments has resulted in a position where instead of domestically produced gas  – fracked or North Sea – we now have to depend upon imports, some from fairly unfriendly regimes; also, those imports are transported on diesel-powered ships, and shipping is a major contributor to atmospheric pollution; still, the agitators can virtue-signal about not fracking and closing wells – so that’s all right, then. To replace coal, we have biomass. Now, locally produced biomass is a sensible use of resources – but shipping wood chips across the Atlantic (diesel vessels, again) is not. The technology to build small nuclear reactors has been available for some time – but we have Hinckley Point under construction, the disadvantages of which I’m not going to go into again.

Too much time has been wasted, and it’s been wasted because of a refusal to accept reality. The shift from fossil fuel dependence to fully renewable power generation is not easy, and it’s not accomplished by setting arbitrary targets and then setting off on a wing and a prayer. What we are doing at the moment is simply going to impose huge costs on domestic and industrial consumers, without a serious picture of what the future should look like. It’s almost like watching rabbits in the headlights. No fracking, because pressure groups don’t like it; but no real plan of where the gas – to fill the inevitable gaps in renewable supply – will come from. Replace gas and oil boilers with heat pumps; mmmm… not really ideal in our climate – people who installed them in good faith are now cold, or taking them out again. Guarantee a very high electricity price to get Hinckley Point built (well, eventually); but there are better solutions for the application of nuclear power – why not use those? And how much of the wasted money could be used to develop tidal and wave power, which given the geographical nature of the UK must surely feature strongly in any coherent plan?

Coherent plan – that’s what’s lacking, and it will eventually come back to bite governments; but it’s the consumers who get the worst of the deal from this incoherence. Higher bills, and no real energy security. This is the most important issue facing governments – when will they understand?   




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