Keeping the lights on

‘We have 10 years to put the measures in place to provide a ‘diversified, clean energy supply which is not dependent on

Russia or the Middle East.’

This was the stark warning at the heart of the alternative energy policy unveiled yesterday by energy expert Prof Ian Fells.

Fells’ report reads like a lengthy broadside on almost every aspect of government’s energy policy. From renewables to nuclear, he paints a picture of unattainable targets, missed opportunities and procrastination that has set us on an inexorable path to blackouts and power cuts within the next five years.

Fells’ core argument is that renewables targets may have to be scrapped, and the lifespan of our ageing coal and nuclear power stations extended, in the face of an energy security challenge that must take priority over climate change.

And a recurrent theme in this analysis is government’s failure to grasp the fundamental engineering demands of its own proposals.

Take the renewables industry. In its desire to meet its 2020 renewables targets, the government recently announced plans to develop 25GW of offshore wind capacity – which would require the installation of around 7000 turbines. This, claims Fell, means we need to install 10 turbines a day between now and 2020, a tenfold increase in the best offshore installation rate achieved anywhere, and a challenge compounded by the fact that the UK currently has just one of the £75m barges required to do this.

Fells’ report adds that our nuclear ambitions are also hamstrung by the realities of the world of engineering, and that current plans take little account of the fact that Britain will have to join the queue for services of one of the handful of companies capable of building nuclear power stations. And while applauding the establishment of the new national skills academy for nuclear, the report argues that much more needs to be done to address the gap that will be created by the impending retirement of many of the industry’s skilled workers.

All in all, Fells’ report makes pretty bleak reading. But it is, at least, another timely reminder that while our financial institutions crumble around us, the skills of engineers are going to be in much demand over the years ahead.

Jon Excell, deputy editor