The end of the big dither?

Features editor

In any other week, the news that the UK is in danger of rolling blackouts by the end of the decade unless eyewatering sums are spent on new generating capacity and renewing the country’s scandalously creaking electricity infrastructure would have been front page fodder, at least for broadsheets. But, of course, this week the newspapers have other things on their minds, and in my paper, the story was relegated to page 13. After the BBC’s wage bill. Interesting priorities.

Announcing his Energy Market Reforms (EMR) White Paper yesterday, environment secretary Chris Huhne said that £110billion of investment will be needed to replace power stations that are scheduled for closure by 2020, with another £90billion for improving infrastructure. £200billion in the next eight-and-a-half years. That’s the sort of sum that needs some context. It’s forty Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, or about ten London Olympics.

‘We have to stop dithering,’ Mr Huhne told the House of Commons. ‘You can have blackouts or you can have investment. Which do you want?’

Mr Huhne’s Conservative departmental colleague, Charles Hendry, was also in a candid mood. ‘One of the reasons the UK has historically had the lowest prices is that we have not seen the necessary investment in the replacement of new power plants,’ he said; quite an admission, from a member of a party which privatised the electricity generation business on the basis that the private sector was better at management and investment than the government.

The fact is that the energy sector has been guilty of chronic underinvestment and timidity for years, partly due to successive governments’ dithering and tinkering with energy policy. It’s hardly surprising, seeing as the environment for investment has been so unstable, with new White Papers delivered every few years and constant rethinking and retrenchment over whether or not nuclear is a good idea, whether there should be subsidies for renewables and so on.

But now, hopefully, we should have some stability. Huhne’s latest White Paper calls for long-term contracts for renewables generation, a carbon floor price and new incentives for building gas-fuelled power stations, with an emissions performance standard that favours gas over coal and a promise that this new regulation would not be reviewed until 2015. Critics might argue that this over-favours gas, but at least it should allow the new power stations to be built.

Far be it for us to blow our own trumpet, but The Engineer has been warning of the dangers of dithering for at least the past two years. An inevitable result of this is that energy bills are going to keep rising; but as Hendry pointed out, prices have been kept artificially low. We’re just going to have to find ways of using less energy, whether it’s by insulating our houses better or by installing more efficient equipment in factories. As we’ve also been saying for at least the past two years.

Energy has slipped down the agenda in the UK for far too long — and its positioning on page 13 of my newspaper, even in this remarkable week for news, shows that it’s still too far down the agenda. We can only hope that the EMR paper will signal an end to the dithering. Otherwise, you might have difficulty reading our editorials in the next few years. The power might conk out before you get to the end of the page.