Rarely are arguments unbiased when it comes to the energy sector. A belief that wind farms spoil the countryside or a Chernobyl-driven fear of nuclear power far too often makes its way into the debate on what sources of energy we should be investing in to keep the lights on while preventing catastrophic climate change.
Of course the solution can’t just be founded on the basic cost of power generation, and questions of safety, security and impact on our local environment have to be addressed. But these issues shouldn’t be allowed to obscure our access to the facts about the technology and economy of different energy sources – something that is happening far too often.
In January, a report alleged that two generations of ministers have misrepresented the evidence for new nuclear power stations, basing their arguments on an assumption in favour of nuclear rather than examining the facts first.
This morning we hear claims that energy bills are likely to rise due to a growing dependence on increasingly expensive gas, because industry is going ahead and building twice as many gas-fired power plants as the government previously estimated.
And in a somewhat bizarre turn, four former directors of Friends of the Earth directors yesterday warned that we were handing control of our energy supply over to the French government by building new nuclear power stations.
The scientific, environmental and political communities are all divided over what our future energy mix should look like, and how much faith we should place in gas, nuclear and renewables respectively.
With time rapidly running out to move away from fossil fuels, it’s more vital than ever that we are given a clear picture of the true costs, benefits and disadvantages of these technologies.
While warnings about backing ourselves into a corner, where we are forced to pay one company for our energy at whatever price they set, should be heeded, appealing to an odd sort of nationalism isn’t helpful. Especially as it’s one of our closest allies we’re talking about, not Russia or Iran.
Our existing nuclear sector is already largely French-owned. In fact foreign companies control a high proportion of our power generation and distribution and without major government intervention there doesn’t seem to be much alternative.
This is as true for renewables, which you’d expect Friends of the Earth to favour, as it is for more polluting forms of generation: our wind farms are mostly run by companies in Scandinavia or Germany, where the turbines are also manufactured.
There is potential for the UK to lead the world in carbon capture and storage and in marine generation, but these technologies are at too early a stage to compete with wind and nuclear for our medium-term plans. We should attempt to strengthen British industry and secure our energy supply where it makes sense to do so, but we can’t lose sight of the most important factors.
Our ultimate aim has to be to provide a secure, low-carbon energy supply in the most cost-effective way possible. The argument about how to do this should be based on facts, not pressure from industry, party politics or nationalistic sentiment. There is a great opportunity for British companies as we reshape the economy but it can’t come at the expense of our long-term energy goals.