By Paul Homewood
h/t Philip Bratby
Britain’s energy crisis is a national political humiliation. It is a direct result of a generation of cross-party policy failures and contradictions which have conspired to deliver a perfect storm.
Grave errors by a range of past energy ministers range from: Patricia Hewitt’s opposition to nuclear power in 2001; Ed Miliband’s refusal to back new clean coal plants in 2009; Chris Huhne renewing opposition to new nuclear in 2012; Ed Davey supporting wood pellet plants over new gas in 2013; Amber Rudd overseeing the end of carbon capture funding in 2015; Greg Clark allowing the closure of the Rough gas storage site in 2017 and Andrea Leadsom banning fracking in 2019, to name just a few.
This brief summary of just some of the failures and short-term policy-making mistakes of recent years ran in parallel with the conscious and consistent run-down of reliable UK electricity generation. Between 2000 and 2017 over a third of the UK’s firm baseload electricity generating capacity was closed to meet EU rules without any comparable net replacements.
Instead, ministers approved weather-dependent renewables and more interconnectors to import power from the Continent, thus offshoring British energy jobs, resilience and security. New nuclear is already twenty years late.
In order to provide a proper understanding and long-overdue analysis of this systemic policy failure, a judge-led public inquiry is needed in the national interest both to prevent recurrence and to identify the key mistakes on the part of politicians, regulators and senior civil servants.
Alongside a long list of former energy secretaries (17 since 1997), ex-premiers Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson should also be called as they led governments which oversaw the running down of British energy security, diversity and resilience.
Exposing and scrutinising how we got here and the decisions taken – or not – over this period is vital as it represents one of the biggest national policy failings in the post-war era.
It has huge implications for the economy, households, industry and future competitiveness – as this winter will show.
News in July that the National Grid had to panic-buy staggeringly expensive Belgian electricity to avoid power cuts fundamentally illustrates Britain’s perilous energy supply. As power demand surged during the heatwaves, the National Grid paid £9,724 per megawatt hour, more than 5,000pc the typical price, to prevent London suffering blackouts.
Whilst backbenchers are told to keep citing Russia and Ukraine as the reason for this very avoidable energy crunch, the real story is much more damning, concerning and home-grown. Years of ministerial dithering alongside bad and conflicted planning by Whitehall and network managers have helped deliver the perfect storm of high electricity prices, tight supplies and insufficient power.
The writing was on the wall years ago following the Blair, Brown and Cameron government’s decision to slavishly follow EU diktat and start closing coal and oil-fired power stations without clear policies to build cleaner equivalent replacements; weather-dependent windmills and solar panels could never fill the gap. The EU’s various power station directives, first supported by the Blair government in 2001, forced the UK to start shutting key plants from 2012.
Consequently, ministers are now desperately trying to keep remaining 50-year-old coal power plants running, at huge cost, alongside the hope that they will be able to import more and more electricity from Europe, again at high cost. So how did it come to this? Only a full and proper public inquiry can help us find out, prevent recurrence and deliver better policies for the future.
The emergency bid to Belgium has importantly exposed Britain’s growing overdependence on imported power. This growth has huge implications for energy security, resilience, future bills and climate change. We must stop building interconnectors and instead prioritise reliable home grown generation.
A public inquiry into Britain’s energy crisis will serve to expose the dangerous and failed doctrine of draconian out-of-date targets and poor policy-making over a generation. The public deserves to know who is responsible for soaring bills and the mistakes which have led to a real risk of power rationing this winter and beyond.
A failed energy policy inflicts huge pain on households, industry and the wider economy. It diverts investment and stops job creation. We need to learn and understand how and why political leaders failed in this most critical area of policy in the national interest.
Tony Lodge is a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies
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September 17, 2022