Friday , February 23 2018
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Redwash

It is a rare day indeed when I find myself in agreement with a Tory minister.  Today is one of those days.  Having spent years raising awareness of Britain’s growing energy crisis, I am fully in agreement with Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson when he warns that the disruption of the UK’s energy supply would result in hundreds of thousands of deaths, and would spread chaos throughout the economy.

Nor am I alone in sounding this warning.  For several years, the CEOs of Britain’s energy suppliers have been warning anyone who was prepared to listen that the UK has entered into an “energy death spiral” in which businesses and wealthy households are using renewable energy generation to go off-grid, while a growing precariat is forced to shiver in the dark; no longer able to pay for heat and food.  The result is that the cost of maintaining Britain’s aging energy infrastructure is falling on an increasingly “squeezed middle,” whose discontent is manifesting in the political arena in the demand for a price cap.

Put simply, Britain’s predicament is this:

  • North Sea oil and gas supplies peaked in 1999 and went into rapid decline thereafter; today producing less than 60 percent of that peak of production.
  • Since 2004, Britain has been a net oil and gas importer supplied primarily by Norway (whose production is also in steep decline) but increasingly dependent upon additional imports from Russia and the Middle East.
  • A combination of climate concerns and a dependence on imported coal resulted in the premature announcement of a ban; which resulted in several coal power station operators choosing to close early rather than continue investing in maintenance and upgrades (Nation Grid is now paying for several coal power stations to be kept on standby).
  • New renewable technologies (wind, solar and tidal) were not deployed on anything like the scale that would be required to replace coal on a 24/7/365 basis; nor has there been any serious attempt to invest in the storage technologies (pumped hydro and batteries) required to overcome intermittency issues (particularly the problem of storing sufficient energy in the summer months to meet the demand of a cold winter).
  • Early hopes that hydraulically fractured shale gas was going to replace the dwindling North Sea supplies were not realised. To date, not a single Btu of profitable shale gas has been brought to the surface; and even if a few sweet spots can be found, economic, geological and geographical barriers mean that fracking will never supply more than a fraction of the UK’s demand for gas.
  • New nuclear plants have been commissioned, but far too late to fill the looming gap. Moreover, plants like the massively expensive Hinkley Point C were intended to be added to Britain’s energy mix, not to fill the gap caused by dwindling fossil fuels.
  • In the absence of sufficient shale gas and new nuclear, the UK government has recently turned to electricity imports to close the gap between supply and demand. By 2030 it is intended that 67 terawatts of the UK’s electricity will be imported (up from just 17 terawatts in 2016/7).  However, this depends upon the rest of Europe being prepared and able to supply surplus electricity when the UK needs it; something that is unlikely across a continent that is experiencing a similar energy squeeze.

Between now and at least the late 2020s (at least) Britain is vulnerable to random power shortages of the kind that Williamson readily admits would be catastrophic for a computerised, globally connected, just-in-time economy.  For all the hot air in the media about smart grids and the internet of things; the reality is that we never got around to getting those things – or the green energy that was meant to power them – off the drawing board.  Instead, we still rely on energy grids, constructed in a different era, centred on large fossil fuel power stations.

If you think random power outages are not a big problem, just try randomly unplugging your computer without shutting it down properly a couple of times a month and see how long it takes for one or more of its components to fry.  Then imagine the same thing happening to every other computer in the UK economy, including the ones that run your hospital, ATM machines, supermarket, traffic control systems, etc.  Chaos, indeed!

We might expect, then, that the minister charged with the defence of the realm might respond to this threat by calling on his colleagues to stop what they are doing and urgently mobilise their resources to build and deploy new energy generation, to construct energy storage facilities to at least mitigate the worst of what we have in store.  That is what a reasonable political leader would do.  It is not, however, what a member of a Neoliberal government well past its sell-by date has done.

What Williamson chose to do was to hide future power shortages behind the new redwash of Russian intrigue and cyberattacks (which, incidentally, the government has already spent £1.9bn defending against).  This might be more to pave the way for future power cuts caused by years of government negligence to be blamed on foreign hackers than a genuine attempt to obtain more defence spending for something that a bigger army or navy can do nothing about.

Of course, it would be foolish to think that the Russian security services do not have plans to disrupt the UK in the event of hostilities.  In the same way, it would be a dereliction of duty if the UK security services had not invested in the means to disrupt Britain’s potential enemies.  And since so much of what we do depends upon networks of computers, no doubt cyber-attacks – including on energy grids – will be a part of that planning.  But having the ability to disrupt something is very different to being motivated to actually do it.

If anything, Russia – whose economy depends upon the export of oil and gas – has a greater interest in helping the UK preserve its (largely gas-powered) energy system.  When the Forties oil and gas pipeline suffered an urgent shutdown last month, Britain’s lights and central heating were kept on by an emergency shipment of liquefied natural gas from Russia.  In future, we are likely to become increasingly dependent upon those Russian imports; and will be prepared to pay a high price for them.

I am reminded of an old Chinese proverb that,

“He who sits calmly on the river bank will eventually see the bodies of his enemies float by.”

The real threat to the UK’s energy system (a large part of which now belongs to foreign governments anyway) is the UK government.  Russia has no need to disrupt Britain’s energy system.  They can just sit back and watch as four decades of ill-conceived Neoliberal energy policy disrupts it for them.

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