Britain’s energy policy went from weird to bizarre

THE answer to Britain’s power supply is beneath our feet, writes Stuart Young.

THE answer to Britain’s power supply is beneath our feet, writes Stuart Young.

There has been much discussion recently about the unintended consequences of certain decisions, actions, or lack of action, regarding UK energy policy.

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Last autumn extensive media attention was devoted to the possibility of power cuts. That prompted me to look at the sequence of events leading to a once great nation not having a reliable electricity generation and distribution system.

I found a number of unexpected and perhaps unpredictable consequences, but I also found a number of unexpected and unpredictable decisions, the consequences of which were entirely predictable.

In 1989-90, Margaret Thatcher privatised the electricity generation and distribution industry. Predictably, the operators’ focus changed from powering the nation economically to powering the nation profitably.

In the following years, global warming became a hot topic and in 1997 Tony Blair signed the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gases.

In 2001 when the EU’s large combustion plant directive signed the death warrant for a number of older high polluting plants, we had no coherent plan for the replacement of this generation capacity. Progress toward meeting our Kyoto commitment was stagnating so in 2002 Mr Blair introduced the renewables obligation.

This carrot and stick device unpredictably handed over the responsibility for meeting Kyoto commitments to the electricity generators, along with a huge financial incentive which predictably led to the industry taking the least expensive and most profitable way of meeting the obligation by wholesale development of onshore wind.

The first completely unpredictable, technically unsupported, game changing bizarre decision came in 2003 when Ross Finnie declared that Scotland could meet twice its allocated burden of carbon reduction. The result was greater pressure on Scotland to produce more electricity from wind.

The period from 2002 to 2007 was a sort of “false peace”, during which the imperative to reduce carbon emissions essentially translated into an imperative to generate by renewables.

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The second bizarre decision came in 2007 when Mr Blair went to Europe to agree a target of 20 per cent of EU electricity consumption from renewables but returned having persuaded his EU colleagues to agree a target of 20 per cent of total energy from renewables. The action was unpredictable but the consequence – a more than doubling of electricity generation by wind – was entirely predictable.

In 2007 Alex Salmond “out-Finnied” Mr Finnie by declaring that Scotland could produce all its electricity needs from renewables. Predictably, Scotland became open season for predatory windfarm developers.

The Climate Change Act of 2008 committed us to a huge 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases. Only six MPs voted against it; the other 640 or so supported it without asking how it was to be achieved. Who could have predicted such a lack of scrutiny? The predictable result was an even greater rush for wind.

Some things which followed the Climate Change Act could not have been foreseen. For example, feed-in tariffs reward people for generating electricity using small-scale renewables and penalising their neighbours by making them pay for the extra cost of generation. Scottish planning policy removed the right to the enjoyment of one’s home from windfarm development in the pursuit of Mr Salmond’s 100 per cent vision.

Next, “connect and manage” was introduced following wind industry pressure to reduce waiting time for grid connections, allowing windfarms to connect to the grid when the windfarms were ready, whether or not the grid was. Before privatisation, this would have been unthinkable.

The subsequent compensation costs for unavailability of grid capacity were entirely predictable – and predictably underestimated. The UK electricity industry became supply-led with the Energy Act of 2013. The existence of remote generating stations now dictates the requirement for transmission, not the need for electricity.

Possibly the second most bizarre outcome is that recently National Grid has recruited a large bank of commercial diesel generators as short term operating reserve. Nobody could have predicted the burning of oil to support going green.

Government is not open. For instance the SNH August 2014 Wind Farm Map is yet to be published because it will show the vast extent of windfarm development in Scotland, unpredictable and unimaginable ten years ago, which will be bad for SNP prospects in the election.

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I was motivated to write this piece by what is possibly the most bizarre decision in the process so far: in spite of having the solution to our energy crisis and carbon reduction target literally under our feet, Fergus Ewing has called a moratorium on fracking for shale gas.

The only similar sequence of bizarre-solutions-leading-to-unintended-problems-requiring-even-more-bizarre-solutions that I can think of began when an old lady swallowed a fly. She’s dead of course… and so is UK and Scotland energy policy.

• Stuart Young is a member of the Scientific Alliance Scotland Advisory Forum