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Keeping the lights on

Energy policy does not grab the headlines like the economy, education and the NHS but it is just as important as they are. No-one wants the lights to go out, but maintaining secure and affordable energy supplies is a challenging technological, economic and environmental issue and not one that we can take for granted any longer

UK energy use fell by 18% from 2000 to 2014, but Ofgem still says there is a risk that our energy generating capacity could fall this winter from 14% to 4% and we could struggle to keep the lights on at peak time on the coldest days. How did we get into this situation and what should the Government do about it?

At the heart of this problem is the failure of successive Governments to plan long term. Coal-fired gas stations and first generation nuclear power stations are coming to the end of their lives and need replacing. There are environmental reasons for phasing out the former and concerns about nuclear waste from the latter. Public nimbyism about possible locations for replacements discourages politicians from decisive action though the Government claims its forthcoming Energy Bill will secure sustainable supplies.  

This is God’s Earth so this is an issue for prayer as much as any other social problem

The continued use of fossil fuels is highly undesirable because they are causing global warming and its consequences. Greenhouse gas emissions have fallen, but the targets for 2025 may not be met without further Government action. In any case, North Sea oil and gas stocks are running out and forcing us to import gas. Solar and wind power alternatives have a place in future energy supply but because they are dependent on the variable British weather, they need back up from conventional power stations. Fracking to release shale gas has been used profitably in the USA but critics point to the huge amounts of water required, the potential contamination of ground water by carcinogenic chemicals and the possibility of small earth tremors, as in Blackpool in 2011. Shale gas is still a fossil fuel.

Twenty-five percent of our energy supply comes from nuclear generation. New technology that is far safer than existing nuclear plants, potentially cheaper and creates 90% less waste is now available. The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor is cooled by helium, an inert gas, not by water used in the existing nuclear plants, the disposal of which is an environmental problem.

The cost of energy is another issue. Domestic energy bills almost doubled between 2004 and 2013. Ed Miliband suggested that a Labour Government would freeze energy prices and the big six suppliers cut their prices but much less than their falling wholesale costs. For some households fuel poverty is a real issue and high energy costs have also contributed to the uncompetitive state of the steel industry.

Better off households and communities could secure their own energy supplies with domestic solar panels and a community wind turbine, whilst reducing their power needs with home insulation. The needs of Industry and the less well-off are not so easily satisfied so we should be looking to the Government for bold, long term planning to keep the lights on. This is God’s Earth so this is an issue for prayer as much as any other social problem.

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