The Observer’s take on Britain’s energy crisis | Observer Editorial
Energy is vital for our daily life. We need reliable supplies to heat our homes, cook, keep our food fresh, power our transportation systems, light our cities, and stay in communication with each other. Ensuring that there are no significant disruptions to this provision is one of the most important tasks a government must perform on behalf of its citizens.
However, in recent months it has become clear that there are now serious constraints on energy security in the UK. Soaring gas prices are causing considerable financial hardship for thousands of households. At the same time, the electricity supply is now at risk as most of the UK’s aging nuclear reactors, which currently provide 20% of our electricity, are at risk of closing in the next few years and it is unlikely, at the presently, that new nuclear power stations are ready to operate. fill the void in lost production.
In addition to these problems, an urgent overhaul of our use of fossil fuels is needed if the country is to have any chance of meeting its goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, a promise made by the government in the as part of its commitment to fight against climate change and help to stop the dangerous warming of our planet.
Currently, about half of our electricity is produced by burning natural gas in power plants. About half of this comes to our shores from North Sea rigs whose overall production declines as gas fields reach the end of their life. The rest of our gas is imported from other countries; most of it is shipped from Qatar or the United States or brought in from Norway. Very little is imported from Russia, it should be noted.
In addition, gas plays a predominant role in heating our homes, a dependency that cannot last very long if we are to meet our climate change obligations. In short, our priority is to replace gas with electricity produced in a safe, renewable and environmentally friendly way.
The nation can achieve this goal in two ways: it can import more electricity from continental Europe (about 6% of our electricity already comes from interconnectors with France, the Netherlands and Ireland) or it can find alternative sources in the UK. The latter route is by far the best, both in terms of establishing the security of our energy supply and ensuring that this electricity is produced in a manner consistent with our carbon emissions aspirations. In other words, energy security and the fight against climate change are inextricably linked.
That transformation needs to be done urgently, however, a point that seems to have eluded ministers whose attempts to reshape UK energy use have already begun to unravel. Consider the government’s green house grant scheme in England. Hailed by Boris Johnson as a key part of his green industrial revolution by helping the public make their homes more energy efficient and less reliant on fossil fuel heating, he targeted a total of 600,000 homes for improvement. In the end, however, only 47,500 were upgraded. As Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, said last year: “This scheme was a resounding failure.”
These setbacks are alarming and underscore the urgent need for ministers to provide the nation with a set of relevant and detailed proposals to generate electricity in a safe and sustainable way while minimizing energy waste.
Several key issues need to be resolved to achieve these goals. The first is the creation of a smart grid system. These local grids would distribute electricity generated from renewable energy sources to supplement grid supply and reduce utility bills. The establishment of such a system must be considered a priority because they offer the prospect of making maximum use of the energy produced on our coasts at low cost.
Properly insulated buildings would have a similar effect. Despite the failure of Johnson’s green homes initiative, efforts to make homes and workplaces more energy efficient should be redoubled. It will not be possible to fit every house in Britain with a heat pump or solar panels. Nonetheless, making more homes and offices greener today will have critical impacts in years to come.
Providing electricity when the weather is gloomy and the winds are non-existent is also essential. Currently, nuclear and gas power plants provide this electricity. The latter’s demise over the next decade will put more pressure on the UK to develop an effective atomic energy programme. Currently our nuclear plans look sketchy and unimpressive, despite the announcement last week of a £100million investment to help develop Sizewell C power station in Suffolk.
Further research is also needed to find new and efficient ways to store energy, so that energy from renewable sources can be stored for those dark, windless days. We also need to find ways to capture and store carbon dioxide from old power plants to extend their lifespan.
Such developments will be crucial in providing the nation with a full range of options to generate its own electricity in a safe and clean manner. The alternative is to sit back and allow these issues to be resolved beyond our shores. In a world where energy will become increasingly essential to national survival, this is not an option to be accepted.